Gazing from ruined pavements: A postcard from Berlin

Potsdam

“Broken fragments of stone become evocative ruins when someone gazes upon them and imbues them with significance; otherwise they linger on as worthless rubble to be swept away or ignored.”

(Michael Meng (2011) Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland. London: Harvard University Press, p.10)

I’ve just finished reading Meng’s book. It examines the ways in which abandoned and ruined Jewish public places (principally synagogues and cemeteries) fared across various eras of neglect, erasure, re-purposing and (in some cases) rediscovery and restoration between 1945 and 2010, in Germany and Poland, under both communism and capitalism. Meng features the arresting image (above) of a crowd of passers-by photographed halted from their travels on the pavement and gazing at the ruins of Potsdam synagogue, in the daylight that followed Kristallnacht (the ‘night of broken glass’: 9-10 November 1938) and its orgy of coordinated ruin-making inflicted on Jewish buildings by the Nazis. Chillingly his sparse commentary draw us into the image, he suggests that we can’t discern from the image what the spectators were thinking, or even why they had stopped to look. This made me scour the picture – searching through the crowd, staring at the back of their heads – hoping to find a face that would meet my gaze and give me some clue. But the image – as Meng rightly notes – gives us no closure, and (as his book provides) requires a detailed meditation on context and an assaying of the ebbs and flows of two rival structures of feeling and acting: “redemptive antisemitism” and “redemptive cosmopolitanism” in each of Germany and Poland in the postwar years.

Meng’s analysis shows how, since the 1980s, Jewish ruins in Germany and Poland have become valorised – via the ascendancy of redemptive cosmopolitanism – in particular through their role in international commemoration and heritage pilgrimages. This seems self-evident, from our contemporary vantage point. But Meng’s book shows that there is nothing eternal or inevitable about this attachment of significance to these places, and his is a meticulous analysis of the unpredictable end-of-life-cycle of any ruin, and of the vital importance of understanding how the materialities (and costs) of dereliction intersect with the rise and fall (and dereliction) of the bodies of ideas that give meaning (and whether for good or ill) to any place. But Meng is also attentive to local contingencies for the sites that he chronicles, the story of each ruin cannot be contained within that building alone. The fate of a place may be collateral damage (or collateral salvation) related to some other local issue or project. To be effective then, the explanatory lens has to be able to move in (towards local prosaics) and out (to be able to situate the site’s fate as at least to some extent within wider sociopolitical trends).

Meng’s book was my holiday reading for a recent short family holiday sightseeing in Berlin. I’d been there once before, 10 years ago, and had done the whole ‘Berlin – city of traces’ thing then, absorbing myself with dark heritage guidebooks and trying to cram in as many glimpses of “the ghosts of Berlin” (Ladd 1997) as I could. This second time around I was happy to navigate the city via family consensus. I was politely but firmly told that this holiday wouldn’t be about ‘Dad’s dark ruins thing’.

The impression I came away with from this re-visit was that Berlin’s traces are neater and tidier now – presented as part of international heritage tourist circuits. The dark stuff is there, but it is increasingly ‘just’ part of those circuits. This impression may simply be a product of the different circumstances of my re-encounter with Berlin, and I’m not suggesting that Berlin in 2010 was somehow purer, more authentic or less touristic. Any experience of any place (and whether ruined, ‘dark’ or otherwise) is at least in part an outcome of what you go looking for. And I’m not going to be po-faced and suggest that somehow my exploring of Berlin in either 2010 or 2019 was itself anything other than a form of tourism. In short, each time I went to Berlin with certain expectations and each time found ways to ‘join the dots’ so as to meet those expectations.

There was one exception however to this ‘I went – I saw – I came home having seen what I expected’ intentionality. And it happened on the day where my teenage daughter had control of our itinerary. She decided that we would go to Berlin Zoo, and so we did.

Climbing out of the metro stations we were a little disorientated. We could see various signs to the zoo, but they seemed contradictory. We shuffled along in a direction that we thought might work, and soon came upon a bulky security barrier, painted in black and yellow, and with the (English) words “Truck Stop” repeated in very insistent, prominent letters. This street architecture seemed overly keen to announce itself and rather awkwardly positioned, laid down in an already cluttered street scene – pavements, market stalls, infrastructure. Then we saw some votive candles on the steps rising from this pavement and on closer inspection could see memorial photographs and a few flowers laid out besides them. Getting even closer (having weaved across the pavement’s heavy traffic of passers by to get nearer) we saw names engraved into the otherwise normal pavement steps. Collectively it started to dawn on us (but not in a tranquil, contemplative way – because our senses also had to remain focused on the perils of stopping within this pavement’s flow of incessant movement): this place was the scene of the 19 December 2016 Christmas Market terrorist attack, in which 12 of the pedestrians who had been using this pavement were murdered by being run down by a truck. Trying to take this in as the world incessantly and very mundanely carried on its flows around us felt unsettling. As I tried to process the newly-acquainted significance of this place fragments of the scene: the steps, the market stall to my left, the pavement beneath my feet, and the recently encountered Truck Stop barrier, all coalesced into a sense of place – that this otherwise unremarkable portion of pavement was a distinct location and that it was more important than any other stretch of the pavement further along this busy road. And yet, as I fought to stabilise this image  of a distinct, important place, it struggled to stay separated from the urban realm and flows of which it was part. Bodies buffeted me as I slowed to survey the scene, elements appeared at the periphery of any provisional framing of this scene – extending it further along the pavement and beyond the steps into the nearby church, the plaza beyond and the bulk of the market stalls. 

That this site was not separated from its surroundings felt strange (given the way that memorial sites usually are separated: e.g. presented as calm, contemplative oases in a nearby park). But it also gave it an unusual affective charge – this place and its unexpectedness had pricked me, and in circumstances where I had not been looking to be pricked. As we walked away I turned to look back at the ‘site’ (and to try and get a synoptic grasp of it). It was then that I noticed a very subtle form of memorialisation that had been installed to ‘frame’ this place. Running down the steps and across the heavily trafficked pavement was a narrow golden slither or rivulet. It was impossible to see the slither in its entirety because of the flow of passersby. It also proved impossible to photograph – for unlike a conventional sculpture it was but a flat mark across busy ground. It looked like a rivulet of golden blood and seemed in its context life affirming rather than mawkish.

Related image

Subsequently I’ve read that this memorial is actually meant to signify a crack – positioning this within the distinctly German post-war tradition of ‘mahnmal’ (warning monuments): for the crack here symbolises the attack (and thus the momentary breach in Berlin’s self-image of redemptive cosmopolitanism, and acting as a call for alertness and vigilance to guard against the risk of such cracks in the tolerant, democratic polity).

The creation of this artwork, by designers Merz Merz, actually involved first the chiselling out of a 17 metre long, narrow crack across the steps and pavement and then the elimination of that void with the golden infill. In that sense the re-joining of the pavement – via the elimination of the damage inflicted upon it – was intended as a redemptive gesture, a gesture augmented by involving the bereaved in the smelting of the gold.

But without knowing this process and backstory I reacted to this as a rivulet. Either way the enmeshment of this site and its subtle monument within the throng of daily life stopped me in my tracks. I had to stop, look from the pavement and make some sense of these broken-and-mended fragments of stone and what they could or should stand for.

 

Image credits: Postdam Synagogue, Potsdam Museum via http://www.grahamfoundation.org/grantees/3950-shattered-spaces-encountering-jewish-ruins-in-postwar-germany-and-poland ; Merz Merz (2017) Der Goldener Riss https://www.rbb24.de/politik/beitrag/2018/07/terror-breitscheidplatz-entschaedigung-antraege-gedaechtniskirche-berlin.html; Making Der Goldener Riss https://www.bento.de/today/berlin-so-sieht-das-mahnmal-fuer-die-terroropfer-vom-breitscheidplatz-aus-a-00000000-0003-0001-0000-000001951349

 

SHU SPG 2019 conference – the comforts and discomforts of place, 10 July 2019

bench

“…what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors…have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host and then a master?”

Khalil Gibran (1923) On Houses.

This free day-long event hosted by Sheffield Hallam University’s Space & Place Group at Kelham Island Industrial Museum on 10 July 2019 (as part of the University of Sheffield’s From Brooklyn Works to Brooklynism programme) brings together academics from across SHU, and beyond, to explore different ways of researching spaces and places, specifically from the perspective of comfort and discomfort. This event is a culmination of a series of workshops held at SHU over recent months, with an evolving set of speakers and attendees. This final event picks up on the themes from those earlier sessions:

  • the awkward legacies of prior uses and configurations of spaces;
  • the instrumentalisation and commercialisation of iconic places;
  • different patterns of dwelling and experiencing private and public spaces; and
  • the commodification (as a measure of efficiency and or exchange value) of space.

Intentionally the assembled presentations are eclectic and juxtaposed in a way intended to draw out connections between themes and perspectives which may not at first glance have much apparent connection. Woven through all of the presentations is a concern to acknowledge that places are often simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortable. Sometimes this duality is productive, sometimes it is painful. In either case, often it is necessary. In the afternoon we will be exploring whether (and if so how) how particular atmospheres and experiences can be designed into spaces and the events that occur within them.

The programme (including each speakers’ abstract) is set out below.

[Please note that the event is free to attend but that places (subject to availability) must be booked via Eventbrite here. Lunch will not be provided at this event: instead delegates will be invited to dine locally at one of the many pubs, cafes and restaurants now available in the Kelham Island district.]

PROGRAMME

09.00-9.30        ARRIVALS & REFRESHMENTS

9.30-9.40           WELCOME & INTRODUCTION

Luke Bennett, Reader, Natural & Built Environment (SHU)

‘Exploring the comforts and discomforts of place and dwelling’

9.40-10.40        SESSION 1: [DIS]COMFORT IN PUBLIC SPACE

09.40-10.00         Amanda Crawley Jackson, Senior Lecturer in French and Francophone Studies &  Faculty Director of Impact and External Engagement (Arts & Humanities)  (University of Sheffield)

“Restoring discomfort: using large format photography to unsettle the comfortable ordinariness of Syria’s Execution Squares”

Hrair Sarkissian (b. 1973, Damascus) is an Armenian-Syrian artist working primarily in the medium of photography.  He is perhaps best known for his 2008 series, Execution Squares, in which he explores the sites of public hangings that traumatised his childhood. In this paper, I’ll consider Execution Squares in the context of my current work on post-traumatic landscapes, focusing on the ways in which these large format photographs of ostensibly ordinary public squares in Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia betray something of the violence that has taken place there. With reference to Georges Didi-Huberman’s work on visibility and visuality, I will make the case that images – and landscapes – such as these exhort us to see differently. Finally, I will argue that  Sarkissian’s work, as a complex meditation on time, plasticity and absence, affords a critical prism through which to interrogate the ways in which the past survives in the present. 

10.00-10.20         Elaine Speight, Research Fellow, ‘In Certain Places’ (UCLAN)

“Making a boob of it: Some thoughts about breastfeeding in public”

This short talk will discuss ideas of comfort and discomfort in relation to the maternal body, through a focus upon the politics and practicalities of breastfeeding in public. As evident from the recent social media furore surrounding Meghan Markle’s ‘baby bump habit’, the ways in which maternal bodies are presented and performed is an ongoing cultural concern. As ‘a leaking, secreting embodied Other’ (Longhurst 2001), the breastfeeding body is a specific source of anxiety, particularly when encountered within supposedly ordered public spaces. Drawing upon my recent experience of becoming a mother, I will examine some of the physical challenges of breastfeeding outside of the home, as well as the social unease it provokes. Touching on ideas of exhibitionism/discretion and the maternal/sexual, I will discuss how the act of breastfeeding disrupts and is disciplined by existing spatial norms, and raises the question ‘who has the right to be comfortable in public?’

10.20-10.40         Ian Whiteside, Senior Lecturer, Events Management (SHU)

“Creating visitor experience in the National Trust”

A visit, like an event, is time out of the everyday. Staff at National Trust properties welcome visitors, except at the Workhouse where they make them uncomfortable as part of the experience. Using the Workhouse at Southwell, Nottinghamshire and Belton House, Lincolnshire as case studies this paper looks at visitor experience in terms of making visitors comfortable or setting an atmosphere of unease. The Workhouse at Southwell is owned and managed by the National Trust and is the most complete workhouse building still existing in Britain. Belton House is the quintessential English Country house and one of the National Trust’s most popular properties. Through a series of conversations, with volunteers and staff, issues including the visitor experience and reasons to visit and return (or not) are discussed and then analysed with reference to the work of Lovell (2018), Boje (2001) and Dorst (1989). This paper, based on empirical data, will look at issues of welcoming visitors, or not.

10.40-10.45      COMFORT BREAK

10.45-11.45      SESSION 2: WARM & WELL?

10.45-11.05         Aimee Ambrose, Reader, Centre for Regional Economic & Social Research (SHU) & Graeme Sherriff, Research Fellow, School of Health & Society (University of Salford)

“Comfort and discomfort in ‘low-energy’ homes in the increasingly inhospitable climate of South Australia”

The energy performance of the housing sector is an important contemporary challenge in the context of environmental constraints such as climate change and social issues such as fuel poverty and social inclusion. This is not a purely technical issue: how occupants live in and negotiate comfort impacts upon to what extent energy efficiency goals can be achieved and this has implications for their quality of life. This paper draws on interviews with residents of the Lochiel Park Green Village in South Australia who have moved into purpose built low energy homes. Using an oral history approach to situate experiences of energy within individual housing histories in order to better understand the evolving relationship between the occupant and the building. Within the context of debates around adaptive comfort practices, this innovative methods reveals that, despite the expectations of some residents, moving to a ‘low-energy’ home has reduced rather than eliminated their active involvement in maintaining a thermally comfortable environment.

11.05-11.25         Michael Roskams, Workplace & Wellbeing Analyst, Technical facilities Management (Mitie plc)

“Can smart sensors support employees’ physical and psychological comfort in the workplace environment?”

Environmental discomfort is rife in the modern workplace environment and can lead to ill health and unproductive work. In this presentation, I will discuss my PhD research, which explores the relationship between environmental comfort, wellbeing, and productivity. The presentation will focus on the partnership with facilities management Mitie, who are pioneering the use of wireless environmental sensors to monitor key parameters of the physical environment in real time. I will discuss the strengths and the limitations of this technology-led approach, and will also discuss the importance of recognising psychological comfort as well as physical comfort.

11.25-11.45         Becky Shaw, Reader, Fine Art (SHU) and Frances Williams, PhD student (MMU)

“Class, Cool and Care: The Maggie’s centre and the discomfort of criticising the ‘Well-being’ aesthetic”

The Maggie’s Centre, Manchester, is seen as an exemplary model for the value of arts in healthcare- cool architect designed, displaying art from The Whitworth Collection, using Orla Keilly towels and hand-made raku mugs, with a stylish wild allotment-style garden and a non-clinical patient engagement format. As part of a nascent research group (Critical Arts for Health) six artists and academics visited Maggie’s and spent time thinking about the particular expression of well-being at work. During our visit we questioned: why the ingredients of the ‘well-being’ aesthetic are so often predictable and how, together, they perform a familiar construct of good taste; the extent to which this spatial and material language delivers care, comfort and is inclusive; and the extent to which the aesthetic language is designed to appeal to patients or to function rhetorically for private sponsors- or if both, how does this intertwine? At the same time our position as critics was deeply uncomfortable, partly because to criticise Maggie’s feels sacrilegious as it is so established as the pinnacle of good cancer care, but also because it caused us to reflect on the distance and privilege of a critical position. This brought to life the complexity of trying to think critically about the often warm and cosy terrain of arts in health.

11.45-12.00      REFRESHMENTS

12.00-1.00        SESSION 3: ARE WE SITTING COMFORTABLY?

12.00-12.20         Esther Johnson, Professor, Film & Media Arts (SHU)

“Alone Together, the Social Life of Benches”

Esther will introduce and screen her film Alone Together, the Social Life of Benches. Through the experiential capacity of film via a series of oral testimonies and carefully composed portraits, the work explores how individuals and groups spend time in two distinctive London public spaces. Revolving around the micro-space of the humble bench, the film incorporates contributions from a diverse range of visitors. These testimonies highlight themes such as the psychological feeling of being in a space, the rhythm and flow of visitors to a place, and the importance of design for everyday street furniture. The film acts like a stranger who joins you on a bench to ‘watch the world go by’, and to break the ice by starting a conversation with their fellow bench user. Made whilst Esther was co-investigator on an AHRC Connected Communities innovation project, The Un-Sociable Bench, and other urban micro-territories of encounter and intimidation.

 http://blanchepictures.com/alone-together

 12.20-12.40         James Corazzo, Principal Lecturer, Graphic Design (SHU)

“Sofa Pedagogy”

This talk will explore the comforts and discomforts of the educational design studio through a study of the squashy object par excellence – a sofa. To anybody familiar with studio environments (professional or educational), a sofa is an unremarkable presence. Indeed, contemporary HE learning spaces are now replete with hub/break-out/informal spaces, often signalled by the judicious use of colour and soft furnishings and evangelised for their apparent capacity to enable collaboration, innovation and flexibility. Eschewing such causal and monochromatic accounts of learning spaces, I will argue the sofa, in this particular studio setting, is a surprisingly mutable object affording a variety of encounters and paradoxical models of occupation: hard/soft, formal/informal, intimate/indifferent, teaching/not teaching. Through talk and draw interviews with tutors and observation, I will show the sofa in this studio is not just a comfortable place to sit, but itself a significant pedagogic actor.

12.40-1.00           Phil Crowther, Reader – Events Management (SHU)

“The comforts and discomforts of business executives sleeping with the homeless on a city’s streets for a night”

The intentionality of charity events (from the charities perspective) is – it can be proposed – to design meaningful experiences to either provoke (or consolidate) behaviour change in participants; often related to donations or advocacy.  Facilitating such experiences that participants perceive as meaningful and thus generate emotional connection underlying behaviour change is – from an experience design perspective – challenging.  We live in an age of ‘attention scarcity’ (and experience overkill) and therefore to achieve such an outcome, an appreciation of the persona of attendee, linked to empathy mapping, is pivotal.  In this presentation I will juxtapose the archetypal charity experience, with all of its comforts, with the discomforts of a charity sleep out event in Sheffield.   A fascinating lens through which to unpick the purposeful design of discomforting experiences.

1.00-1.10              Luke Bennett & Phil Crowther

Wrap-up for the morning, tasking for the lunchtime exploration of Kelham Island’s experiencescapes and an outline for the afternoon’s session

1.15-2.30           LUNCH

NB: no lunch will be provided. Delegates will be invited to eat at one of the local pubs, cafes, restaurants and to take the opportunity there to analyse how the experience offered there is staged and its atmosphere of comfort/discomfort engineered.

2.30-3.30           SESSION 4: ANALYSING THE COMFORTS AND DISCOMFORTS OF LUNCH

A facilitated discussion of delegates’ lunchtime explorations of local experiencescapes. This will showcase the variety of disciplinary perspectives upon – and varied methodologies for – ‘reading’ places and their atmospheres.

3.30-3.50           REFRESHMENTS

3.50-4.50           SESSION 5: SHU ‘EXPERIENCESCAPES CLUSTER’ INAUGRAL MEETING

The ‘Experiencescape research cluster’ has very recently been formed and in its very early stages of capitalising upon the wideranging engagements of SHU academics across psychology, sociology, hospitality, tourism, events, marketing, architecture, design, media and communications, lawyers and real estate in the study, design and critiquing of ‘experiencescaping’. The overarching interest of the cluster is the purposeful facilitation of physical and virtual spaces in order to stimulate a positive mental response from their consumer; underpinning desired actions or behaviours in the short term, and longer-term patronage and advocacy. Experience design is prevalent, and a topic ripe for examination, and the cluster seeks to deepen collaborative links both within the university, but also with industry partners engaged in the production of experiencescapes; retail, visitor attractions, stadia, city / town centres, events, and more. This discussion will – developing the themes of today’s earlier sessions – present some early ideas about the cluster and most importantly seek colleagues views on how the cluster can prosper.

(NB: all delegates are welcome to participate in this, and whether SHU staff or otherwise).

 4.50-5.00           CLOSING REMARKSLuke Bennett & Phil Crowther

 

 

Image Source: Still from Esther Johnson’s 2015 film, Alone Together, the Social Life of Benches

Awkwardly exploring fear, fascination and ambivalence in the ruin of Hitler’s Bunker

Image result for hitler's bunker

“Fixating on the historical locale feels naïve, even juvenile; the prime epistemological illusion of ‘heritage’, after all, is to substitute place for process, thus to manufacture ersatz ‘experience’.”

Patrick Finney (2007) ‘Finding the Führer Bunker’ Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory & Practice, 11(2) 287-291

As Finney notes in his short essay (which is an apology for him having momentarily drifted off into thinking about Hitler’s bunker when he meant to be doing other, proper academic work), showing an interest the specifics of iconic Nazi places may not be a good career move. Instead it may lead to you being bracketed with a motley collection of conspiracy theorists and fanatics. Writing about Cold War bunkers is just about passable now as an academic endeavour, but turning the spotlight onto a previous era’s concrete caverns is more risky.

So it’s been with some awkwardness that I’ve worked up a study of the post 1945 afterlife of the subterranean site of Hitler’s last days, and the resulting article has now been published in the Polish Geography journal Geographia Polonica as part of their special issue on ruination, demolition and urban  regeneration. The article is free to download here: http://www.geographiapolonica.pl/article/item/11707.html

The aim of this short blog is to add visuals to the story, and the argument, that my article sets out in its text by displaying my slides for a presentation of my paper at the ‘Thrill of the Dark:  Heritages of Fear, Fascination and Fantasy’ conference being held at the University of Birmingham at the end of the month (details here: https://thethrillofthedark.com/).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Here’s my abstract for the conference presentation:

“Within days of Adolf Hitler’s suicide in his subterranean command bunker deep beneath the Reich Chancellery, the Führerbunker came to be framed as an object of dark fascination and illicit access. First Red Army looters, then Allied investigators, and a few months later Winston Churchill all came to pick over the remains of this place. Then in 1947 Hugh Trevor Roper, propelled this cold, dank underground bunker into a symbol of thwarted meglomania, the stage for a Götterdämmerung, in his account of his search for Hitler’s missing corpse. Through such framing the site has sustained a lure for Anglo-American war veterans and tourists ever since. Yet to Germans (East and West) this site was a place of political contamination, the tomb of a potential contagion that had to be kept contained (by successive demolition action and cycles of banalisation and profanation). Almost forgotten, the site was ‘rediscovered’ in the early 1990s scrubland of the Berlin Wall’s death strip, and amidst the subsequent redevelopment of that now prime real estate a questioning of the site’s meaning, and of its potentialities, started to emerge: oscillating between calls for the primal darkness of this subterranean lair to be constructively co-opted into holocaust memorialisation and (more recently) in an increasing co-option of the site as part of heritage tours. Cultural representations of this place have become increasingly decontextualised and denatured, transformed by the generational passing of time into a more free-floating, titillating glimpse of a darkness that once was. Through this case study this paper will interpret this semantic decay, showing that ascribed darkness, fear and moral-coding for a site are not eternal givens but rather that they ebb and flow over time, and that studies of attachment to dark places need to be able to account for this, by becoming more processual.”

My Geographia Polonica article uses this chronological account of the slow-death of the Führerbunker as a way of thinking through what ruination really entails – considering the interweaving of material and semantic decay, and intentional and incidental attrition in that place’s slow, faltering fade. As shown above, my presentation also follows this trajectory, and its concern to identify the stages of that faltering fade, but it additionally touches on this bunker’s iconic on-going reverberation, showing how material obliteration of such an undesirable, dark place does not ensure its elimination from culture. Accordingly, towards the end of the presentation I chart how this place increasingly becomes a disembodied signifier – a metonym for evil and failing ‘last days’ governance. In doing this I’m connecting back to the first paper I ever wrote about bunkers:  Bennett, L. (2011) ‘The Bunker: Metaphor, Materiality and Management’, Culture and Organization, 17(2) 155-173. [free copy here].

So, by the end of the presentation I’m thinking about ruination in a non-material way and with a concern for how a (dark) symbol fades: what are its processes of semantic ruination and stubborn persistence?  In the final flurry of images I present the last days of the Führerbunker as now a free-floating meme that is not dependent for its survival upon the clarity of the spatio-material co-ordinates or physical condition of its site of origination. And this roving meme (this virtualised Führerbunker) has increasingly looser, multivalent rules of use (testimony to its normative ruination). It is now freely appropriated for a wide variety of irreverent re-purposing. These appropriations retain the essential ‘last days of governance’ abject motif, but appropriate it for new satirical projects of varying degrees of importance or seriousness. In doing so these appropriations reinforce the generality of the ‘bunker mentality’ metaphor, but also weaken the specificity of a real Hitler having inhabited a real Berlin bunker during a real total war that lead to millions of real deaths. And there’s nothing better to encapsulate this than the Downfall parodies:

 

 

References: for these please see my Geographia Polonica article.

Picture credit: https://www.express.co.uk/travel/articles/633088/hitler-grave-resting-spot-berlin-germany

 

Living with the dead – notes from the ‘Community of the Dead’ conference – 30/1/14, Cambridge

o-DOUBLE-COFFIN-RICHARD-III-570

The following are my notes and thoughts from a one day conference organised by Anglia Law School (Anglia Ruskin University) on:

“the contested claims to human remains and our relationship both individually and as a community with the remains of the dead. This conference engages both with this relationship and the practical difficulties of the ever-increasing challenge of full cemeteries and the exhumation of remains in the course of construction and archaeological excavations” (ARU 2014)

The dead amongst us

Carl Jung pictured the collective unconscious, using the metaphor of a house: specifically of waking up to find the dead in the basement. Ian Hodder (2012) has found a real life mirror for this metaphor – a Neolithic civilisation at ÇatalhÖyÜk in what is now Turkey, who inserted the remains of their predecessors into the very fabric of their homes – skulls incorporated into structural columns and the dead buried beneath their homes’ plastered floors. In contrast we in northern Europe rarely visit our basements, and certainly would not expect to confront the remains of our ancestors there.

Whilst the dead vastly outnumber the living, they are usually invisible to us. We only glimpse the dead of generations whose lives didn’t overlap with our own in a fragmentary way. We stumble upon their texts, their artefacts, their graves and – only very occasionally for most of us – their bones.

This multidisciplinary conference looked at our relationship to the materiality of the dead – of our laws, procedures, cultures and technologies as they interface with mortal remains. In these notes I will highlight themes that meant most to me. This account in no way claims to be definitive, particularly authoritative or even complete. It is not a transcript, and reorders the flow of points and, perhaps, finds meaning other than what was actually intended by the presenters.

The conference was advertised under the banner of ‘the community of the dead’ but it quickly became clear that no single community could be ascribed to that title, and indeed none of the presenters figured the dead themselves as being the community in question. The presentations actually accounted for a number of different communities of the living constellated around bones. I will therefore use this multiplicity as a way to present my notes – looking at each presentation as indicative of one of a number of communities of the dead.

Bones and the community of the living

Event organiser, Jane Martin of Anglia Law School opened the conference with a case study based upon her own village and a barrow noticed in a recently constructed municipal cemetery, subtitling her talk “a confusion of bones in our landscape” she set out the quest that she had undertaken to make sense of this strange local hump. Her finding was that the barrow was indeed of recent origin – built by the Parish Council for the interment of the skeletal remains of four Anglo Saxons, from a cache of 60 discovered during nearby housing development works.

For Martin this investigation was anchored in her wanting to understand her place in history – to become more deeply embedded in her adopted local community. Likewise she saw the actions of the Parish Council as that of the living reaching out to the dead – bringing the dead into our reality to make sense of our continuity. This engagement, therefore, was essentially a question of belonging and communion. It seemed to matter little, in this civic plan, that only a fraction of the human remains were being interred in this structure, or that a barrow-style burial would not have been in keeping with the modest 6th century AD fortunes of the village.

Martin concluded that just as ancient barrows were placed into the landscape as territorial markers – using the bones of the dead to make a foundational point about the living’s claim to place – so the ‘new’ barrow was doing just that – making a statement about place and territory in the early twenty first century.

Bones, pipes and wires – the community of function and future

Martin’s presentation was followed, by a contrasting presentation from John Doyle, a Construction Manager working on Crossrail, with particular responsibility for the Liverpool Street element of the project. Doyle’s presentation intriguingly spent much time outlining the elements and aspirations of the complex construction works programme. Through this he revealed a community that deals in change, future and the maintenance of life sustaining urban functions: development and construction. Doyle illustrated the complexity of the existing subterranean realm at the site – of the existing services – the pipes, cables, machine rooms, tunnels and conduits that must all be moved before work on the construction of the new underground station can begin. Amidst images of engineering diagrams, superimposing what-is-to-be upon what-needs-to-be-moved, mention of an area of ‘archaeological’ constraint finally emerged. Thus the 4,000 or so bodies interred in the former Bedlam Hospital cemetery would need to be excavated in order that the utilities could be repositioned as a preliminary for freeing up the three dimensional ‘box’ to be excavated for the underground station – a project element described functionally and dispassionately in project documents as “sterilisation of the ticket hall footprint”.

In presenting the issue of bones in this light, they fell into an entangled relationship (both conceptually and literally) with the wires, pipes and other enabling works. The bones were given no priority, accorded no special level of difficulty or ontology. Doyle did explain the particularity of the processes triggered by the encounter with these bones, but it was this meshing aspect – the bones as just another constraint to be solved – that struck me most.

That, and his – almost tender – description of the fragility of cast iron Victorian water mains, and the great care needed to avoid them shattering when being worked upon. Perhaps this – in contrast to his more matter of fact references to the exhumation of the cemetery – reflected a differential in the level of contact – that others (archaeologists and ‘clearance contractors’ as exhumation teams seem to be known) exhibit care upon the bones, and that he and his construction colleagues are more directly involved in care for the frailty of pipes, the care of adjacent buildings, the care of workers going onto deep excavations and the hazards therein.

I intend no criticism by these observations – I think it’s really interesting that the bones were incorporated into the overall process – they were not seen as standing in some separate realm.

The possibilities that inhere in bone – the Edinburgh University Bones Collective

Dr Joost Fontein and Dr John Harris, both of Edinburgh University’s ‘Bones Collective’, gave a joint presentation each illustrating through field examples (Newfoundland and Zimbabwe) what bones do to people, what they enable, afford, provoke, constrain or allow. They presented these as excessive potentialities – actions that are object forming in the sense that the bones have no stable meaning in and of themselves and become a projection space for a variety of communities and purposes in their unearthing and subsequent attempts to stabilise their meaning, once these “hard enduring remains of humanity [have been] dragged into visibility” for our purposes (whether ethical, scientific, forensic or otherwise). In short, they become embroiled in a “politics of remaking” (both quotes Harris) – both remaking the physicality of the skeleton, as an assemblage of bones, and remaking meaning for the unearthed elements as they pass between multiple hands and purposes.

In his case study, Fontein gave a glimpse of an alien – to us – mode of interpreting bones, with the vernacular exhumation techniques used by war veterans in Zimbabwe, and in particular their use of spirit mediums to identify the bodies, a practice proudly defended in counter to criticism by European observers of their lack of formal forensic expertise with the anti-colonial retort “we use African methods here”. He also pointed to the important role of material culture in the sense making process – that in these exhumations items such a mobile phones found with the bones were richer information about the provenance of the bones than the bones themselves.

Like Harris, Fontein emphasised the processual aspect of bones – that they are caught up in a flow of material and meaning. Their location, assemblies, condition and meaning change over time. As such, their assemblages are made and remade repeatedly. Bones resist stabilisation, they remain unsettled unless and until a final accommodation can be made for them, facing contestation and controversy along the way. Constantly those charged with care of the dead strive to achieve this finality and whether through physical means or conceptual assignment, but slippage remains a potentiality in all cases. The bones cannot be totalised, they cannot be fully laid to rest.

Working with old bones – the community of archaeologists

A number of speakers pointed to the ambiguous relationship between archaeologists and bones, but it was Duncan Sawyer’s (UCLAN) presentation that set this ambiguity – and its essential tension regarding the obtaining and holding of bones by archaeologists in the name of scientific enquiry – to most sustained analysis. Bones have always been seen as research material, but Sawyer explained that it is only since the mid 1960s in the UK that digging up bones by archaeologists has been seen as having ethical connotations, and – in particular – that it has come to be regarded as subject to the exhumation licensing requirements of the Burial Act 1857.

Sawyer charted the course of this recent history, of the evolution of Ministry of Justice guidance and illustrated by reference to projects both the frustration of archaeologists at having to give up research material for reburial and public concern at insensitive treatment of human remains. In doing so he revealed how progressively archaeologists have come to realise that the law does indeed apply to them.

Contestation remains however around how long archaeologists should have for the analysis of excavated human remains, and in what circumstances they might – on the basis of ‘national’ research value – be retained indefinitely. Debate remains around what reburial actually should entail, and whether the requirement to screen exhumation sites from public view serves any purpose – there being no clear idea as to whom that requirement is meant to protect – whether the sensibilities of bystanders or the dignity of the dead.

Bones, flesh and the demands of making and maintaining burial spaces – communities of need

Julie Rugg of York University’s Cemetery Group articulated the world of the policy maker – and also that of burial authorities who must find sufficient space for the dead. Rugg explained that with cremation rates now plateaued at 70% the need for burial space remains a pressing one. Rugg sought to interrogate attitudes both towards the dead, their corpses and also to their decomposition. For her, the stage of passing beyond bones – the eventual disintegration of the remains and their dispersal into the ground of the surrounding burial plot was a part of the process of burial that had least public purchase – the dematerialisation of the dead in their graves. Rugg argued that if policy could better understand this process of disappearance, advocacy of the re-use of graves would be more successful.

This led to debate with Sawyer and others in the audience, who pointed to instances of bones lasting many hundreds of years. All agreed that the contemplation of in-grave decay presented something of a Schrödinger’s Cat conundrum – with decay being affected by so many factors and their being so little research upon it that all are left guessing how long it takes for a grave to fall ‘empty’.

If there was a common thread connecting the presentations, it was an acknowledgment of the processual nature of the ‘life’ of bones – that their status is never final, and rarely settled. They are an affective materiality, loaded with connotations and contest. They speak to something universal and yet are concealed from normal view. We don’t know how to live with them.

References: 

ARU (Anglia Ruskin University) (2014) Community of the Dead web flyer: Link 

Hodder, I (2012) Entangled – An archaeology of the relationships between humans and things, Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester.

Image source: further excavations at the Leicester car park at which Richard III was disinterred in September 2013: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/29/coffin-richard-iii-burial-site-inside-tomb_n_3671397.html

Scree is here

scree end

Later this month I will be receiving some of the limited edition print run of Scree, my collaboration with landscape photographer Katja Hock. These will be rubber bound artefacts, the significance of the scuffed matt industrial covers being explained here. But in advance of this, and because we’d like to share our work beyond the confines of those who might normally want a ‘coffee table’ art book, here’s a link to a free pdf copy of the main part of our publication:

Bennett & Hock (2013) Scree

Scree was kindly commissioned by Amanda Crawley Jackson (Occursus) via the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise Fund, and is published as part of the ‘TRACT’ series of collaborations between text and other media.

The unspoken question that haunts Scree is ‘what happens if we dwell on wasteland?’. Here ‘dwell’ can be taken in a number of directions: ponder, linger, inhabit, exist. Here’s the opening text to Scree to set the scene…

Starting out

The Wadsley Bridge to Neepsend escarpment runs along the northern edge of the upper Don valley. To the geologist this ridgeline is made up of coal measures and shales overlain by sandstone. To the local residents of north western Sheffield it is comprised of scrub, dereliction, pylons and a landfill tip. To the local historian it is an area rich in industrial and urban history.  To my kitchen refuse it is a final resting place.

To me it is all of these things, and more. In the pages that follow, Katja I and I set out to traverse this ridgeline and to depict in words and images what we find there. We can’t claim that what we find are essences – for the truth of this place is infinitely multifaceted – but what I do hope that we’ve brought closer to surface is the richness of materiality and meaning that can be found even on this steep scrubby hillside.

What is a hill?

The topography under examination here is a hybrid: pre-human geological processes sculpted this landform, but human activity added to it (and took away from it). This place may seem a grubby backwater now, but it was not always thus. The hill came to be a dynamic human-geologic assemblage, particularly in the heyday of the industrial era. Successive attempts were made to colonise this area and turn it to a variety of productive purposes. These have all left their marks. They have shaped this place, and they in turn have been shaped by it.

In a modest way we seek to give a sense of the hillside’s agency. It is not a passive, dumb brute. It has the ability to shape how humans and other creatures engage with it, and yet it is not a singular thing. It is a collection of materials, each resting on the other. The hill is a set of layers, craters and fill plus a surface crust of living and dead things that – in the main – are just passing through.

The capacity of this landform to absorb, flex and channel human activity is what has struck us most. These, like many of the city’s other hills, are rich outcrops, worked for hundreds of years for their stone, earth, water, timber, iron and game. Over recorded time these hills have been gouged by mine workings, slashed by deforestation, riven by roadways and confected by settlement. Yet each successive engagement has brought a process of human-hillside accommodation. Schemes adapted to fit geology; local topology yielded to enable temporary slithers of human incursion.

A note on style

The style of writing and reflection that follows is broadly in step with contemporary psychogeography, specifically a variant defined by Nick Papadimitriou as ‘deep topography’. In this form attention to everything is important – but in a way that avoids the crowding in of dominant (or expert) accounts of the place, as Papadimitriou puts it:

“But while knowledge of structure or nomenclature can foreground discreet aspects of a place, it can also occlude. Sensory properties of locations encountered while visiting or passed through – a particular moist wind that flaps about the face like a flannel, a singular quality of light remembered but seldom encountered – are screened out all too easily if the primary purpose is on the type of cornicing found on a building passed or the names of the building companies that transmitted field parcels into batches of housing back in the 1930s”

This approach celebrates the subjective affective response to the hillside and its human-material form. But it also (as Papadimitriou does in his work) weaves in this place’s equivalent of cornicing and the names of building companies. All are part of this hillside. Thus the end result is wantonly promiscuous, a mix of both cornicing-detail and impressionistic revere: a hybrid approach that revels, as Mike Parker has put it:

“in the connections made, the eye for the rusty and rotting, the sometimes haughty disregard for over-hyped landmarks, the comprehensive sweep that fuses politics, history and topography through observation and trenchant supposition.”

Style and substance

What follows adheres to that pattern, but if this style of landscape enquiry is to be anything other than competent word plays and an antiquarian’s eye for quirky detail, it must add some character and some insight – something that rises above the mechanical formulae by which such mix-and-match accounts can be assembled. For my part I would hope that what we present here goes that extra step in attempting to give a voice to the ‘stuff’ and ‘processes’ of the hillside by foregrounding matter – the brute ‘stuff’ of this hill – and consequential human encounters with this materiality.

In the final section I step back from my own direct experience of this place, and try to show the rich interaction with the ‘stuff’ of this hillside by people who have lived, worked or visited there and contributed their memories and enthusiasm to on-line community forums like Sheffield Forum. There is an unexpected richness in the way in which former denizens write of their experiences on (and with) the hillside.  They did not just visit or live there, they stood, dug, searched out, picked up, played upon and made and/or threw away things there. And in doing so they projected meaning and significance onto this matter, and onto the hillside.

The word ‘matter’ conjures both senses of what I’m pursuing here. How is matter made to matter? If we approach the hillside from this question we find a rich symbiotic relationship: the hill, its matter, its (only ever partial) colonisation for industry and dwelling and the daily interaction with human bodies entailed in all of that. This was evocatively struck home for me in one recollection I came across:

         the stories of local tramps

                                                                         gravitating to

                                                                                                                        the  Neepsend   brick    works

                                                                                                                        at night, to sleep in the warm

                                                                                                                        shadow  of the massive kilns.

On Three Outcrops: Granite – trial and ordeal

“A rock, an event, a past, cannot write itself…and yet it does” (Schlunke, 2005)

I now close this outcrop trilogy with a multi-site rumination on the imperviousness of granite.

Haytor

haytor1

Granite always involved a journey inland, and a negotiation too. Growing up in a household without a car it was always a convoluted trek to Dartmoor to commune with its stout grey sentinels. It would entail finding a spare seat on the extended family’s convoy into those hills. But the relative difficultly of reaching these rocks added to their lure. To be there, amongst them was to be somewhere made meaningful through its relative unattainability; special through a (modest) trial and ordeal. Whilst barely 30 miles from my town, these bulbous grey mica flecked outcrops felt regional, rather than local. I hold cherished memories of actual visits, but the yearning to visit was always stronger than the specific memories of actually being there. In melancholic moments the image of being up amongst these windswept peaks was a strong one. A wished for recuperative:  something to blow the cobwebs away, to recharge the batteries, to fill a hole.

Granite sits and broods, squat and strong, its forms asking to be clambered upon, pored, investigated. But it doesn’t give much away. It leaves you to speculate. Unlike the perishing, unstable and ubiquitous rocks of Torquay, granite has a resolute firmness and mystery. And there is something sinister in granite’s sly Easter Island faces: a silent leeching of radon from its radioactive pores, that gas seeping into basements, slowly poisoning unventilated air and bringing 1,200 lung cancer related deaths each year in the granite zones across the UK (Laurance 2010). A slow, silent-but-deadly, rock fart.

Bluff Rock

“Bluff Rock sits. Bluff Rock towers. It is the silent main character in this crime cum ghost story – it is always there, it always remains.”

Bluff Rock

Kristina Schlunke’s Bluff Rock (2005) is an account of her attempt to investigate an 1844 massacre of aborigines atop a local granite outcrop close to her Australian outback childhood home.  Schlunke ‘s research ranges across contemporary accounts, wider cultural context and the material conditions of the event-space. The rock itself is offered up as a mute witness to whatever happened there. For Schlunke preoccupations of the present inevitably seek to project onto any attempt to interpret the past. She sees the urge to order and make sense via selection and narrative as something to be – if not resisted – then at least laid bare. In that sense her investigation becomes resolutely autobiographical and deconstructive. The outcrop itself is presented as resistant to this ordering, resistant to the writing (or revealing) of the ‘truth’ of the event. In the swirl of interpretations, Schlunke clambers to the top of Bluff Rock and finds there no plateau, no clearly defined edge from which the cornered aborigines could have been ‘thrown’ (as in the testimony of the perpetrators). Schlunke is not seeking to deny the atrocities of colonialists and their actions against those already inhabiting the supposed Terra Nullis, but she finds threads that cannot be neatly assimilated into any of the circulating accounts. She concludes that the massacre probably did take place – once amongst many in this locality – but probably not at this landmark, that scenery having been added later, as though the event required geological ‘sexing-up’, bringing in a dramatic staging point, a crescendo for the endemic casual violence of such frontier encounters.

Bluff Rock passes no clue other than its own topography and density of thicket. It is impervious to rapid travel and interrogation alike. A material synonymous with memorials and headstones gives up little testimony of this past. Instead meaning comes from that projected onto this outcrop by its passersby:

“To drive past Bluff Rock is to see nothing but rock. To stop at the viewing place is to acquire a name and some history. To go to the Visitors’ Centre and ask for a leaflet is to be given a story of omnipotent white power.”

Cave Rock

Schlunke notes the instability of the very naming of Bluff Rock (and of the colonial urge-to-name as part of territorial conquest). An early – rain soaked – explorer came upon the outcrop in a wet July  and declared it ‘St Swithin’s Bluff’. That name didn’t stick, but – as for Schlunke – “This combination of rain and rock and the figure of a man’s body open to the elements and the effect of other men, creates a very nuanced image of that first ‘owner’”.

Cave Rock

Likewise Matthew & Michael Makley find something similar in Cave Rock (2010), their account of the disputed use of a Nevada lakeside granite mass, the remnant of a volcano that erupted there three million years ago. To the local native American Washoe tribes this outcrop is “De’ek wadapush” (Rock Standing Grey), to the white explorers who then sought to style a name for this landmark, it was variously “Rocky Point” then “Indian Rock” and then “Cave Rock”.

The Washoe detoured to avoid this place. It was a potent place, to be visited only by shamen and at which secret rituals of re-powering would be performed, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. But then in 1859 the white man’s gold rush saw a plank bridge-road skirt the edge of the mass. Then in 1931 engineers blasted a road tunnel straight through it (with a second tunnel added in 1957). The Washoe were not consulted.

Granite comes in many shapes and textures, but is often notable for its sheerness. As Schlunke puts it: “only straight, downward fissures and the simple immensity of granite”. Cave Rock was of a formation not well suited to traditional crack system based climbing, but the pioneering of bolt enabled sport climbing in the 1980s opened up the possibility of sheer rock faces to climbing. You don’t need cracks, seams and crevasses if you have runs of metal bolts fixed into a face.

In 1987 the first sport climbing route was pioneered at Cave Rock. Sports climbers bolted this vertical landscape and – in their view – improved the place by tidying up the litter and tunnel debris they found there, and paving the cave base. Ultimately 325 anchors marking the 47 distinct high-challenge routes written onto the face of Cave Rock by the scrutiny of the pioneering climbers who attentively read this vertical place and its route-potential, portraying this engagement with the rock in ecstatic, semi-spiritual terms, for example route pioneer Dan Osman:

“When I finished ‘Psycho Monkey’, I looked to the right and saw the line of ‘Phantom Lord’, which was harder [5.13b]. When I finished that, I looked to the right again and saw…the line of ‘Slayer’…I yelled to my belayer to lower me, and ran over to start working on it.” (quoted in Makley & Makley, 2010).

The climbers’ interest in Cave Rock coincided with emergence of a (slightly) greater attentiveness to Native American affairs in US Federal policy, sparking long debate amidst Cave Rock’s custodians, the US Forestry Service, about how the seemingly incompatible uses could be reconciled. The Washoe wanted all non Washoe use of Cave Rock to be banned. In retort the climbers developed a triple pronged argument, first that US constitutional law prohibited the Forestry Service from acting in a way that promoted the interests of a religion. Secondly, that the spiritual integrity of Cave Rock had already been erased by the road tunnels and thirdly, that Cave Rock now held a rich spiritual meaning for climbers too (hinting at an equivalence to that of the Washoe).  Meanwhile – to add to the messy reality and multiple meaning making in play at this site – Cave Rock had been designated as a Federal heritage site due to its historic transportation significance: the road tunnels!

Sadly, the dispute remained one largely polarised between the climbers and the Washoe, the vision of a march upon Cave Rock by an enraged mob of access defending road tunnel enthusiasts never materialised. Ultimately, after some extensive to-ing and fro-ing the Federal Appeal court decided that it was lawful for the US Forestry Service to ban climbing at Cave Rock without falling foul of the US constitution. The rock’s heritage value for the Washoe (and the general population of the area) could be acknowledged , and climbing upon this publically owned land could be prohibited as of deleterious character to the integrity of the rock itself.

Subsequently, the climbers bolts were removed, their holes plugged and the climbers flooring works taken away too. But Cave Rock remains publicly owned land, it has not been repatriated to the Washoe, and traffic still streams through the tunnels.

What the granite thinks of all this is not known.

 

 

References

Laurance, J. (2010) ‘Radon Gas: the silent killer in the countryside’, The Independent, 10 August.

Makley, M.S. & Makley, M.J. (2010) Cave Rock – climbers, courts and a Washoe Indian sacred place, University of Nevada Press: Reno.

Schlunke, K.M. (2005) Bluff Rock – autobiography of a massacre, Curtin University Books: Fremantle.

Image Sources

Haytor, Dartmoor – http://travel.aol.co.uk/2013/07/12/mother-son-die-falling-100ft-dartmoor-devon/

Bluff Rock, New South Wales – http://www.onthehouse.com.au/reports/property_profile/12445298/7417_New_England_Highway_BLUFF_ROCK_NSW_2372/

Cave Rock, Nevada – http://blog.skiheavenly.com/2012/08/01/hiking-to-the-top-of-cave-rock/

On Three Outcrops: Sandstone – on the broken red cliff

Image

The house is perched.

“Ominously precarious” – an expression first encountered aged 13 in a heavily thumbed school exercise book. A phrase so rarely used, but most apt here. The remains of a house hanging, at the top of this recently slumped cliff.

Below, 300 feet of deep rich red Devonian sandstone, slewed upon the beach below, bleeding into the sea.

Until the sudden failure last year, this was the primest of Torquay’s real estate. The safe, solid seats and views of the town’s ruling fathers and daughters. But now worthless in conventional terms, the half-house now attracts illicit visitors, those wishing to add a frisson of peril to their cliff top picnic, scavengers and arsonists: a beacon for those who are drawn to peer over into the abyss.

But what catches my attention most is that red. That unfeasibly rich red of the soil I grew up with in these parts. That red that I saw swirling up from the beaten path as we strode across the field to visit the hilltop spot where I scattered my nan’s grey-white ashes last year. Those eddies caught in the low, strong rays of the last hours of daylight. That red, that sun, that familiar hilltop overlooking the bay, and its sister hills. Comfort, all.

Until I left here aged 18 I thought soil everywhere was this colour. And I thought rocks everywhere were this friable too, destructible by a petulant kick and in a perpetual state of disintegration. Where I grew up this apology-for-stone was everywhere, and looking at a geological map of the town for the first time today I now understand why. As I travel across the town I move between bands of underlying geology. My part of town was a Breccia belt of loosely composed compressed red earth and its conglomerate. All around me the houses and their garden walls were made of this readily to hand stuff. A suburb of red, dessicated blocks, just a few generations away from mud. It all felt very primitive, and approximate. The cliff collapse told me I’d got something right. This stuff is barely rock.

But this is not the only rock in Torquay. Moving across the town – so the map now tells me – the seven hills on which the town sits (or at least the town’s foundational myth rests) are mostly limestone, and now I see with freshly opened eyes: there are plenty of rough hewn grey stones lining gardens, holding back embankments and otherwise adapting local civilisation to the extreme up-down typology of this place. There is rock everywhere co-opted upon this surface. No bricks: just grey ones, red ones, smooth ones, rough ones. Rock, rock, rock. Torquay is born of its rock, its confluence of geological epochs and processes.

Even the name of the town is a nod to its rock – ‘Tor’ means hill. Thus my town:  the quay by the hills, by the bay of the hills.

Yet strictly in Devon-speak, Tor is a reference to the granite outcrops of Dartmoor, 20 miles landward of this red edged coast. Looking west (peering awkwardly between the rays of the dying sun) I can see the silhouette of the moor’s sentinel Tors on the horizon. Perhaps as they sit there surveying the lowland scene beyond, they mock the fake coastal Tors, these imposters made of squashed mud, sand, pebbles and eons of tiny shell-fall.