Autoarchaeology and what it means to be us: excavating the A380 without leaving the car.


Get in the car

“If place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, historical or concerned with identity will be a non-place.” (Augé 1995: 77-8)

For Marc Augé roads are empty transit spaces, voids between places of departure and arrival. They are not places themselves, because they are not energised by attention, affiliation, community or continuity. Upon the non-place of the highway we are each locked into the confines of our own dulled, atomised, instrumentalist present.

Following my earlier blog here, this essay continues my problematizing of Augé’s ‘non-places’. It does so by pondering a one mile hillside portion of trunk road and finds that far from being non-place, this dual carriage-way can be shown to be deeply relational, very much wrapped up with histories and a very fertile ground for attachment and the formation and sustaining of identity and meaning.

Gravity and memory on the A380

We’re at the base of Telegraph Hill, a steep ascent for the A380 as it speeds out of the Exeter basin, and onwards towards the South Devon coast. The A380 starts as a spur, splitting off from the Plymouth-bound A38, at the base of this hill, just past the hamlet of Kennford, and its tired hostelries straining to catch the attention of motorists as they speed past.

I’ve travelled this road many, many times in my 48 years. It feels like it is etched into my very existence. Growing up in Devon, my family existed in two separate camps, which I was shuttled between. This road’s ascent to the summit of Telegraph Hill was the transition between two zones of experience, the topography acting as cues for my mental adjustment to suit the mores of the camp that I was journeying towards. That transition was mapped out by the course of this road, and specifically its ascent up this long upward climb.

Habitually you accelerate into a hill, because you know that it will drain your power as you climb. Embodied experience conditions precisely how and when I start to accelerate into this hill, and that point in the road takes on ironic significance on this summer 2015 iteration of my familiar journey, for at the point of habitual acceleration (or thereabouts) we ride over the extinguished remains of a Royal Observer Corps nuclear fallout observation monitoring post. This spring was dominated for me by hunting out these places, so it was inevitable that I would look to find them on my route towards my childhood home. This adds a new significance to my re-experience of this part of the A380, and in turn has triggered the ruminations that have led to this piece of writing.

The former Post’s location is somewhere beneath my car as I speed along the tarmac, the bunkerologists having told me that Exminster ROC Post (opened 1964, closed 1968) is:

“DEMOLISHED. No trace of anything. The site was probably lost during realignment of the junction to the east in the 1970s.” (Subbrit 2001)

I travelled this road regularly in the late 1970s, prior to this realignment. I try to think back to that time. But I can’t remember individual trips, the memory of the lumbering ascent upon rickety buses is an aggregate memory, a generalised montage. And in scouring my mind’s eye I see nothing of the extant, but already abandoned ROC post somewhere nearby. But I do recall the image of standing on the verge, by the back of a bus, sometime in the late 1970s, our ascent temporarily defeated by the demands of the hill climb. But all I can picture is the rear end of the coach, and a vague sprawl of trees and a sense of evening light fading. That’s it. Whilst I must have been close to that Post, but I never saw it. And I never saw Smokey Joe either.

Smokey Joe was a famous tramp who lived in a layby half way up the hill for many years, feeding off the land and the donations of passersby, until his death in 1976. The layby was testimony to the mechanical trials of this ascent, a place for lorry drivers to pull over and cool their overheated engines. Smokey Joe had chosen his pitch wisely, with an eye on gravity and the limitations of contemporary auto-engineering.

Even after 40 years the approach to that pull-in still compels me to glance into the shaded grove beyond the layby, a habituated action born of efforts as a young child to spot Smokey Joe’s encampment.

But that remembrance, and its accompanying reflex glance, is not – it seems – something unique to my experience of this hill, for South Devon internet forums testify to many whose childhood experience of this ascent was conditioned by the spectacle of this roadside dweller. And the character of these recollections, amidst some wistful nostalgia, is a remarkably consistent compound of memories that fuse the somatic strain of the hill climb with the hill-dwelling of Smokey Joe. This seems a specific manifestation of what Tim Edensor finds emergent in the shared experiences of regular travellers along familiar routes:

“we might conjecture that constellations of collective experience constitute something akin to a structure of feeling shared by motorway drivers in general and commuters along particular routes more specifically” (2003: 155)

This tramp, personifies the effort of the climb, thereby stabilising both a memory of this man, and a shared experience of both a time and place: the hill climb in the 1970s. Perhaps this gravity-connection is something that has emerged with the benefit of hindsight, otherwise Joe would have been called Layby Joe, or even the Crawler Lane Man, but the name that stuck emerged from an even more immediate material feature of his existence, for those who met him or the other two tramps inhabiting the Haldon Hills in the 1970s, testified to their amenability, and also to their odour. Smokey Joe was so-named because he and his wood fire, and its pervasive smoke, had become synonymous. And it was the plume of smoke from his fire that would be the looked-for sign of his presence as the layby came into view.

And then across on the North-bound, carriageway, another gravity-memory springs to mind, that of my father switching off the engine as he freewheeled downhill, inspired by the fuel crisis of 1974 and its aftermath, a global geopolitical reality expressed upon the conveniently steep incline of a South Devon hillside.

I was always relieved when he turned the engine back on, usually around the point at which we passed the sand-pit escape lane, kindly provided in the layby for the assistance of any motorist who discovered his brakes had overheated and failed after excessive use on the long descent.

At one point in a journey my father had asked me what I was thinking. I was pondering the virtual nature of the transfer of ransom payment monies as part of the US embassy hostage situation, following the Iranian Revolution. That family image now sits in my head (and maybe his), very much emplaced upon a random stretch of dual carriageway, the scene at which a distant geopolitical situation was suddenly uttered into our shared discursive world, as our car sped towards Exeter.

Augé’s critics point to the irrepressible creation of a sense of place by individuals. As Edensor shows, driving releases lines of flight both in the sense of velocities of travel, but also chains of association that link distant, seemingly unconnected themes, times and places. In contrast to Augé’s figuring highways as barren, linear ‘non-places’, Edensor revalorises them, highlighting their “complex, associational and folded geography” (2003: 156).

Furthermore, and stepping beyond a broadly psychogeographic salvation of autospaces based upon personal reverie and free-association, Peter Merriman (2004) has shown roads are sustained communal projects – they call together a cast of thousands, those who design, build, and maintain them plus those whose lives and journeys intersect with them. The shared experience of them as places is a result of the ideas and matter brought to those spaces in co-ordinated and sustained campaigns of civil engineering.

Roads are socio-material accomplishments, and as such they exist with, through and beyond us, regardless of our reflex to loath or rhapsodise upon them. Rosemary Shirley (2015) touches on this notion of roads-as-places-whether-we-like-it-or-not dimension, when she writes that roads are unequivocally part of the contemporary countryside. They are not alien encroachments from elsewhere – urban tendrils invading the picturesque purity of arcadia. Shirley persuasively argues instead that they are a feature of rural modernity, challenging our tendency to equate modernity with the metropolis. Roads comprise a core feature of both our environment and our modernity. We are creatures of roads.

So, how might we investigate this residual roadness, to take matters beyond cultural geographers’ saving roads from their non-place fate by showing us how we dwell within autoscapes, animating them as meaningful places by our presence and thoughts?

Excavating the layered remains

Here I want to consider what additional insight we might attain from archaeology – by engaging with the extant roadway as situated material culture. Importantly, this requires us to adopt a broad view of archaeology, and specifically to think about how we could investigate things-in-use, for the road is very much in use, and is very much of our time.

Rodney Harrison & John Schofield (2010) map out possible routes for engagement with the interpretation of modern roads within their prescription for an ‘archaeology of the contemporary past’ – arguing that an attentiveness to the time-depth and materiality of roads and their support infrastructure can further help to build a rounded picture of the phenomenon of contemporary auto-mobilities, and perhaps thereby to further assert the place-ness of autoscapes.

An archaeological analysis of my stretch of the A380 would show how this road has always been in a state of change. Its origins can be traced back over 2,000 years to a Roman road occupying the current course through the Haldon Hills. This continuity of route is attested by one of the first UK road maps, John Ogilby’s Britannia of 1675, and continues into the era of 18th century turnpike trusts and thereafter local authority stewardship. And yet that continuity is deceptive, for the precise route up Telegraph Hill has fluctuated in width, position and composition. To excavate these roads would be to work down through layers of different iterations of this highway, innumerable flexes and adjustments, repairs and reconstitutions. A road never stops being made.

Perhaps an archaeological eye would zero in on what the physical composition and arrangement of this road section tells us about how roads fit into our socio-technical systems. The escape lane would tell us of the limitations of our braking systems, the reorientation of road junctions at the summit of the hill would hint at our corrective attempts to address an accident blackspot, and to facilitate both safer and more fluid trafficking upon the A380 and its side roads. And looking to the surroundings, the highway facing 1960s chalet type buildings verging the highway at Kennford and the abandoned 1960s motel at the summit of Telegraph Hill would tell us of an optimistic era in which the challenge of the hill climb warranted rest or refreshment before or after the ascent, and the vacancy of this ruined plot would tell us of the marginal profitability of this autospace oasis in the early twenty first century. The crawler lane and Smokey Joe’s layby would also testify to the mechanical limitations of twentieth century motor vehicles. And analysis of changes to the road configurations would tell us material-tales of the cult of acceleration, the progressive excising of contour hugging bends to create a straighter road path, of the separation of northern and southern carriageways and of road widening to dual carriage. Meanwhile analysis of roadside litter, evolutions in lighting and ‘cat’s eye’ design, changes to crash barrier provisioning and the altered chemical composition of road marking pigments would all tell their own story (in the latter case, revealing our contemporary concerns with toxic substances in the disappearance of lead chromate pigment from the pigment of yellow road markings over the last decade).

But, much of this would require physical access to the highway, and would be ruled impracticable on cost, safety and disruption to the all-important flow. So what could archaeology add?

The drive by autoarchaeologist

“we can all be archaeologists of the contemporary past, because it is a critical inquiry into what it means to be ourselves” (2010: 12)

So write Harrison and Schofield in After Modernity, their contemplative manifesto for an archaeology concerned with making sense of the lived past – the past that exists within our present, because it has been lived by us. It is an archaeology that does not set out to encounter some remote Other, through its material remains, but rather the application of archaeology’s techniques (and its sensitivity to place’s flux through time) towards making sense of our own times, and our own sense of being.

Harrison & Schofield’s embrace of the subjectivity that lies at the heart of an attempt by us to study ourselves is refreshing, and positions their prescription for archaeology much closer to a phenomenological sensibility than we might expect of archaeologists, given that discipline’s efforts to align to scientific rigour and truth-seeking disposition built up during the twentieth century. Their prescription opens the prospect that all of us are capable of this critical enquiry (thus ‘autoarchaeology’), because the methodology is essentially a contemplative one:

“Thinking through and analysing the places we experience are normal processes that people go through often as a matter of course. And for us this seems to be the essence also of an archaeological approach. No digging required. Just observe, engage and think.” (70)

Indeed, Harrison & Schofield namecheck both Michel de Certeau and Georges Perec, in their avowal of the importance of studying our everyday existence – for:

“if we overlook the everyday, we overlook what it means to be us and we run the risk of remembering only the noteworthy, or the unusual” (11).

So, if we are being urged to co-opt archaeological methods to notice, and thereby remember the normal, the unremarkable, the prosaic – are we witnessing the point at which the archaeology of the contemporary past merges into something psychogeographic? I’m particularly thinking of Nick Papadimitriou’s ‘deep topography’ here, and his invocation to foreground everything, to background nothing. To scavenge in order to multiply, rather than to reduce our experience and its world to certain marked, salient points.

This may be pushing Harrison & Schofield’s argument too far – but it certainly opens up further bridgework between the academics and the lay meaning-makers roaming out there, enchanting and energising the supposedly prosaic phenomenon of the contemporary world like the A380 at Telegraph Hill, giving it a longer-than-normal stare, and glimpsing something else to remember, something else to take into the future as part of their own lived past. And there are plenty of people already out there doing precisely this, whether reminiscing about crawler lanes and old tramps in laybys or ‘researching’ the evolution of local road systems. In preparing this essay I’ve drawn upon the products of such labours, I’ve explored the A380 through the online resources assembled by a number of enthusiast groups – the Chudleigh History Group, the Devon Milestone Society, Torquay United Fans Forum, the ‘This is Exeter’ web-forum, Facebook, Wikipedia (on escape lanes, tarmacadam, the history of speed limits and Telegraph Hill), the BBC Domesday Project, Subterranea Britannica, CBRD (Chris’ British Road Directory) and the Society for All British and Irish Road Enthusiasts.

We are indeed all contemporary archaeologists.


Augé, M. (1995) Non-places: Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. Verso: London.

Edensor, T. (2003) ‘M6 – Junction 19-16, Defamiliarizing the Mundane Roadscape’, Space & Culture, 6(2): 151-168.

Harrison, R. & Schofield, J. (2010) After Modernity: Archaeological Approaches to the Contemporary Past, OUP: Oxford.

Merriman, P. (2004) ‘Driving places – Marc Augé, Non-places and the Geographies of England’s M1 Motorway’, Theory, Culture & Society, 21(4/5): 145-167

Shirley, R. (2015) Rural Modernity, Everyday Life and Visual Culture, Ashgate: Farnham

Subbrit (Subterranea Britannica) (2001) Royal Observer Corps – An on-line survey of the UK’s ROC and UKWMO Monitoring Posts at:

Links for Smokey Joe reminiscences:

Image source: – Junction_of_A380_and_A38,_Haldon_Hill_-_Geograph_-_1537146


Collapsing the sky / closing the building: some thoughts on the unbecoming of places


Yesterday afternoon, at 4pm, at the moment that Matthew Flintham was searching in Newcastle for ways to materialise the UK’s militarised airspaces, thousands suddenly found themselves stuck to the ground, as the virtual-but-real commercial transit spaces normally mapped out across the sky by the UK’s National Air Traffic Service’s mainframe disappeared. A glitch caused these air lanes to temporarily vanish – and for a moment the sky ceased to be a humanised place, it became undefined and uninhabitable: it collapsed as a place.

An hour or so earlier I’d also been speaking at the University of Newcastle’s Cultural Significance of Place symposium– giving an account of Marc Augé’s ‘non-places’ thesis. On one level it’s easy to dismiss his ideas: with an ‘of course non-places don’t exist, wherever we inhabit we bring meaning to, a place we are in can’t be meaningless’ assault. But rather than go for the obvious, I highlighted some of the nuances of Augé’s arguments, and tried to show their usefulness.

Fittingly (for yesterday’s conjunction of events) Augé writes at length about airports as the epitome of (nearly) non-places, framing them as places of pure transit, the arrangement of such hubs simply being to facilitate the passage of persons between other – meaningful – places (the place that they want to leave; the place that they want to go).

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For Augé a non-place is an ideal-type, and extremity unlikely to be encountered in pure form. It marks out a spectrum: non-place at one end and the mostly richly connected-to space at the other.  The extent of a place’s existence can thus be measured (somehow) by reference to the amount of engagement/meaning given to it by the user/dweller, and (for Augé) specifically in how ‘based’ (i.e. grounded) in that localised site the dweller actually is. Augé’s argument is essentially one aimed at his fellow anthropologists and their fondness for equating place with community attachment to a group-defining locality (something he styles ‘anthropological place’). He argues that with the rise of globalising forces and technologies, modern life (which he styles supermodernity) entails weaker and more individualised engagements with place, thus we pass through rather than dwell in places.  The static and certain communities and localities that we used to be quintessentially based in, now have a less powerful, less directive role in our identities.  He concedes that such ‘weak’ places are not like the stable bounded worlds of the ‘primitive’ communities that his colleagues might ordinarily focus their studies upon. But he urges them to also study the anthropology of supermodernity – and precisely in order to understand how increasingly individualised meaning making still manages to construct stabilised ‘singularities’ (and thereby maintain at least some localised semblance of place and notions of what to do there).

If we accept the impossibility of a pure non-place, we are left with the challenge of understanding weak, or individualised (and/or commodified) places, and to grapple with the conditions under which they come into being, subsist and die. This links back to Matthew’s work on visualising military airspaces – for they ‘come and go’ during the course of the day, and few are in existence 24/7. They are also ‘creations’ (places) known only to their makers (the military and NATS) and users (pilots). By they are vitally important to these people, even though they are near non-places to passengers who are transiting through them. Likewise (if we return to the ground), at airports the passengers have a very weak place attachment to the airport – it is simply a means to an ends – but what about the staff who work there? A cleaner, for example, will have a very intimate and meaningful task-driven attachment to the washrooms and their surfaces that they must regularly inspect and traverse with their mop and sponges.

Even in supermodernity places are still made meaningful by people in symbolic and physical interaction with portions of the world – sometimes those meanings are strong, aggregated notions that excite and direct action. Sometimes the meaning is individualised, improvised and/or a product of personal biography or events. And the meaningfulness of places changes moment by moment. If Augé is proposing a place/non-place spectrum, and we view this as a dial then in the places of supermodernity the needle is constantly moving – and each of us has our own dial. We cannot speak about any place being a non-place per se, for all times and all people.

These thoughts were helpfully set in train by Emma Fraser’s talk in Sheffield earlier in the week. Emma gave a talk on ‘Salvaging the urban obsolete’ as part of UCLAN’s In Certain Places programme, talking of her ongoing work at the University of Manchester upon ruination and people’s engagement with ruins. Emma posited that a ruin is never static, and that to watch a ruin is to watch a process of physical and social dissembling – thus that is an observable process of place unbecoming, as both matter and meaning irresistibly decay.

Emma’s talk paved the way for artist Victoria Lucas’ film After (2013), the result of her residence in the Castle Market complex, Sheffield’s ultra-Modernist 1960s markets, now facing demolition. As Emma observed, the moment that ruination starts is rarely witnessed by an analyst. Victoria’s short film (below) thus helpfully (and evocatively) captures the early to mid-stages of the unbecoming of the markets as a place-for-many. But it never becomes a non-place, because it remains populated by security guards – and for a time by Victoria – with both bringing a sense of place and activity to their ongoing engagements with it. But we do witness part of the material and social process by which ‘closure’ of the market triggers a collapse of this place into ruinspace.

Victoria Lucas (2013) After

And finally, back to Newcastle. Alistair Bonnett is speaking, reading extracts from his book Off The Map. He draws forth two types of non-places, which at first glance don’t appear to have any connection. First the intentional non-places of rendition and other ‘black-ops’, the places that the state does not want you to notice. These – says Alistair – are ‘redacted’ places. There is an art to hiding such facilities ‘in plain sight’, and a lot of effort is expended in achieving it. Matthew Flintham’s presentation was also addressing this – the ubiquity of inaccessible (to bodies and/or comprehension) militarised landscapes. Then Alistair points to banal, non-functional rump-spaces, that have ‘non-place’ character because they have no clear purpose, such as undercrofts beneath motorway flyovers. But these get colonised by psychogeographers or rough sleepers, so even these don’t fit the non-places ideal type.

There is some tension in applying the ‘non-places’ label to both the ultra-top secret and the ultra-banal. But I was aiming for a middle point in including bunkers in my own talk – the bunkers I’m concerned with are ubiquitous bunker-ruins. They are no longer secret or access-restricted. I don’t deny that secret and dark places still exist in operational mode, but it is the ‘what happens after’ question that intrigues me. Abandoned bunkers – and I’m thinking here of the national array of 1,500 Royal Observer Corps fallout monitoring posts, are often of the ‘hidden in plain sight’ type, but now that hiddenness is not maintained by anyone. So, they are just ‘in plain sight’ and available for those who wish, to project their meaning onto them. They are not non-places, they never were. They have always been meaningful to some people (although ‘who’ these people are has changed over time). And this meaningfulness is not entirely individualised – it is developed, shared and sustained through ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger, 1998) and their ways of doing, knowing and seeing a bunker.

If we can get past the popular view that Augé’s book consigns certain types of places to a negative or meaningless ‘non-place’ status, we can find that actually it helpfully advocates the worth of studying how types of places fade in and out of notice, and – by extension – what representational and/or pragmatic logics are at play at any particular moment of a localised built structure’s material life, as it moves along its journey of unbecoming.

Photo credit

STANTA battleground airspace in East Anglia – photo and 3D model by Matthew Flintham


Marc Augé (1995) Non-Places: an introduction to [an anthropology of] supermodernity, Verso: London (Trans. John Howe) [NB: for the 2009 second edition of the English translation the words ‘an anthropology of’ is dropped from the subtitle, obscuring the original audience that Augé was directing his argument to]

University of Newcastle’s Cultural Significance of Place Interdisciplinary Research Group:

University of Central Lancashire’s In Certain Places programme:

Matthew Flintham:

Emma Fraser:

Victoria Lucas:

A review of Alistair Bonnett’s off The Map book:

Etienne Wenger (1998) Communities of Practice – learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

RGS 2014 – ‘Moving forward with Legal Geographies’ – final session details

Sherfield Building

Antonia Layard (University of Bristol) and I are convening three sessions on legal geography at the Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference in London at the end of this month. A previous post on the overall aims of the sessions is here, and now below are the abstracts of the individual papers:

When?: Wednesday, 27 August 2014, 9am to 4.20pm

Where?: Imperial College, London in Sherfield Building, Room 8

How?: Details of booking procedures and the full RGS 2014 programme are here.

9.00 – 10.40am, Session 1: Legal productions of spaces and environments

Recovering Whigs and Hunters: Imagining a political-legal ecology

Wendy Jepson (Texas A&M University, USA)

Legal geography and political ecology address a common set of concerns about space, place, and nature that include the nature of property, access, power, illegality and governance. Yet these two epistemic communities have little common vocabulary or meaningful debates to precipitate lively engagement beyond cursory citation or footnotes. Critical legal geography skirts along the edge of political ecology, yet seems to fold back into broader debates within human geography on scale and the production of space. Political ecology adopts a rather limited instrumentalist interpretation of the law. To address this tension and missed opportunities, I turn to EP Thompson’s history Whigs and Hunters (1974) as a new starting point to consider what conceptual advances may be made by integrating these two intellectual traditions. I outline promising synergies that have the potential to move forward what I imagine as a collective critical project underlying both geographies: (1) materiality, (2) relationality; and (3) co-production. While limited in scope, attention to these three areas provide starting points to imagine what a political-legal ecology would look like, what questions it would address, and how it would contribute to an overarching critical project in legal geography.

Sequent Legal Occupance as a framework for interdisciplinary legal geography – The ‘Severnscape’

Caroline Buffery (University of Birmingham)

Recent debates in legal geography have highlighted that there is a need to develop more creative approaches to understanding the intersection between law and geography to catalyse wider inter-disciplinary interest. Such input from other branches of knowledge can deepen investigations into the relationship between law and geography, and contribute to the development of novel conceptual approaches to address the intersections between space, place and time. This paper argues that such engagement can be achieved by using a Sequent Legal Occupance (SLO) method of analysis. Drawing upon the concept formulated by geographer Derwent Whittlesey, SLO adopts law as a focus for the investigation of navigation and fisheries on the River Severn estuary. Drawing on archival resources, this paper identifies the ways in which law and geography, when viewed through an SLO ‘lens’, have both historically played reciprocal roles in the formation of the contemporary environment in terms of ‘occupance’ within and upon the landscape. Analysing the legal conflicts that occurred concerning property, rights and the river, the paper demonstrates the role of legal geography in examining the interconnection between the ‘non-corporeal’ (fish and water courses) and those that utilised these resources, arguing for a move away from the predominantly anthropocentric focus within current legal geographic approaches. The ‘Severnscape’ is revealed as a hybrid, multidimensional lawscape, affected in a multiplicity of ways by its geographical aspect, illustrating the diverse relationships between institutions, nature, and society. I argue that the SLO approach of associating the past with the present has the potential to engage the interest of a diverse audience (particularly within environmental law and policy) promoting a better understanding of the correlation between law and geography, and the effects of such a fusion on place and space.

Environmental Law and Geography in Brazil

Jonas Dias de Souza (University of São Paulo, Brazil)

Brazilian Environmental Law is defined as a set of principles and rules that regulates the relationship between society and environment. In this manner, Environmental Law and its doctrine establish a series of principles and concepts in reference of environment (natural forest, natural and artificial landscape, natural protect areas) in order to guide the application of law and make it intelligible.

This paper aims to investigate how Environmental Law and its doctrine construct a geography of the world through its principles and concepts and what are the ideologies and power relations behind this construction. We systematize the principles and concepts present in Environmental Law and analyse the discourse of Brazilian doctrine. In doing so, we dialogue with the current studies of Legal Geography (Forest, 2009; Blomley et all, 2001; Holder & Harrison, 2003) and discuss how space and law are integrated (Blomley´s concept of splice), the manipulation of geographical reality by law and social problems of such construction. We also try to contribute to Legal Geography bringing the discussions and concepts of Brazilian geographers, specially the territory concept of Milton Santos (1994), the idea of Geographics Ideologies of Antonio Carlos Robert Moraes (2005), and the concept of temisfera (the juridical sphere) of José Nicolau dos Santos (1954).

National is bad, local is good. Local legislation and the rescaling of security in Italy

Francesca Menichelli (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium)

Since the early 2000s, a shift has taken place in Italy in legislative production on the topic of security, which moved from being an exclusive responsibility of central governments to being something that falls under the scope of action of regional and, increasingly, municipal authorities. While at first glance this development may seem part and parcel with the fragmentation of control brought about by neoliberalism, it actually has to be framed within the ongoing crises of legitimacy that have been affecting national authorities since investigations into political corruption first broke out at the beginning of the 1990s. On a general level, the passing of local laws on security in all but one of the Italian regions has been instrumental in formalising the role of local authorities in the provision of security to citizens and in promoting the creation of networks of exchange and co-operation linking governing bodies at different scales of government. In turn, this has contributed to the emergence of a new constitutional-legal and political order structured around the problem of urban security, which is increasingly challenging the centralist organisation of the Italian state. Taking these developments as a starting point, the aim of this paper is to unpack the idea of scale that is assumed in these texts, so as to analyse the political and deliberative process that resulted in these acts in terms of the uncritical replacement of an unproblematic, fixed and negatively connotated idea of ‘national’ with an unproblematic, fixed and positively connotated idea of ‘local’. Then, the article will go on to highlight what the tensions and conflicts are that can arise out of such narrowly defined notions of scale, and what contribution geography could offer to law-making.

Contracts, firms and competitiveness: a missing link in economic geography?

Rachel Mulhall (University of Birmingham)

Contractual agreements of all types – written and tacit – between transaction partners are a fundamental component of the organisation of production. All exchanges involve some form of explicit or implicit arrangement that reflects the nature of corporate relationships. As the manufacture of products and services is increasingly fragmented, inter-firm agreements are becoming more significant and increasingly complex. Formal agreements, and their legal implications, have a limited critique in economic geography, despite having a direct influence on two fundamental aspects of firm performance: flexibility and competitiveness. Through an analysis of the intermediate metal component manufacturing industry in the West Midlands region of the UK, the development of trading agreements between buyers and suppliers is examined. By exploring the social context in which the relationship between transaction partners is developed, the paper highlights the importance of formal contracts as a tool in inter-firm trading. The study examines the trading relationship of five case studies (buyer and supplier), which are supported by 50 further interviews in the industry and its trading partners. Contracts are based on legal geographies – a contract can only be enforced with a specified jurisdiction. But how firms use this form of legal geographies is interesting. Forms of contracts, from global to local, and their combined use with informal trust- or dependency-based relationships provide a collection of transaction agreement structures. The combination of agreements can provide both flexibility and rigidity to firms, but also binds together distinct spaces of firms and legal territory. Optimising the mix of flexibility and territory can be extremely beneficial to the organisation, both customer and supplier, but can also provide a route for the transfer of risks between trading partners.

10 – 12.50pm, Session 2 – Interrogating assumptions of legal closure

Distance to justice: (absence of) legal protections of New Mexico’s day labor community

Kevin Raleigh (University of Cincinnati, USA)

In 2005, New Mexico became the second U.S. state to pass laws protecting day labor workers, an increasing sector of the American labor pool. Understanding legislation concerning day laborer rights and practices of day labor temp agencies in New Mexico demonstrates an initial foray into bridging geography of law and neoliberalism. Furthermore, it provides additional consideration that clarifies the labor subset for whom this law applies, and calls into question the apparent redundancies and repetitions with existing federal law. By assessing the impact analysis (Clark 1989) of the New Mexico Day Laborer Act and employing a “conversational analysis” (Blomley 1989) comparing it with the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the National Employment Law Project (NELP) on day labor and the day labor statutes of neighboring Arizona, this research actualizes the reality of legal closure (Blomley 1994) and maps this reality as an abstract distance to justice that these marginalized workers must – but thus far have not – overcome in the pursuit of fairness and the elimination of abuses in the work place. This research also suggests that the New Mexico Day Laborer Act creates the marginalized community of workers that it aims to protect, and that the erroneous combining of universalist statutes protecting individuals and particularist statutes protecting communities (Forest 2001) – as well as unrecognizing the breadth and manageability of space over which the law dominates – depletes the law of its power. To that end, this research demonstrates that the particularist provisions of this law are ineffectual and realistically unenforceable, while the universalist statutes, though preventative and theoretically enforceable, place the burden of proof upon the marginalized workers themselves, and thus create an insurmountable distance to justice.

Country guidance and international protection: Law, geography and the enclosure of jurisprudential knowledge

Simon Parker (University of York)
Ronan Toal (Garden Court Chambers)

This paper draws on a number of important recent cases in the UK and European Courts regarding the circumstances in which the rights of an individual seeking international protection might be breached if they were to be returned to their country of origin or a third transit country. A central feature of all such deliberations is the role played by what is referred to as ‘country guidance’. Country guidance is an official assessment of the political, economic, social and cultural situation that obtains in national territories where there are significant levels of asylum or international protection claims to the United Kingdom. Currently such country guidance is produced and issued by the Upper Tier of the UK Immigration Appeal Tribunal (the highest immigration tribunal in the UK) and its findings as a matter of fact are not open to challenge by appellants. The effect of these guidance rules has been to assign to immigration judges and their advisors the role of infallible experts on the political geography of some of the world’s most volatile and conflict ridden societies. This has potentially fatal consequences for those who, by virtue of their inability to challenge the veracity, contemporaneity and comprehensiveness of the country guidance find themselves and their families returned to circumstances in which a very real threat to their life and liberty exists. The paper concludes by identifying the emergence of a new governmentality of jurisprudential knowledge that is extending the powers of the state into domains of social scientific expertise that have remained hitherto autonomous and resistant to instrumentalisation.

Legal pluralism and the everyday politics of domestic violence law in Cambodia

Katherine Brickell (Royal Holloway, University of London)

In September 2005 the Cambodian National Assembly ratified the ‘Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of the Victims’ (DV Law). Drawing on in-depth research undertaken over a two-year period and funded jointly by the ESRC/Department for International Development (DFID), I explore the hiatus that has emerged between promises enshrined in legal reform and progress realised on the ground. Through a mixed quantitative/qualitative approach, I trace the everyday politics of DV Law from the perspective of different lay and institutional stakeholders who operate under a pluri-legal system of state-sanctioned and customary law. And I question how DV Law has been variously embraced and rejected in the homes, commune councils, and government offices that contribute to its success or failure to meet its objective, to: ‘prevent domestic violence, protect the victims and strengthen the culture of non-violence and harmony within the households in society in the Kingdom of Cambodia’.

Legal Geography: Becoming spatial detectives

Antonia Layard (University of Bristol)

Legal geography investigates the co-constitutive relationship of people, place and law. This paper (which is currently in review for Geography Compass) provides an overview of how the law and geography project emerged, and in particular the ways in which its recent scholarship has investigated how law makes spatialities thicken (and thin) at different times and locations. It explores how legal practice, in all its discretionary and rule-bound variety, co-produces places through an attentiveness to, and sometimes an apparent dismissal of, spatiality. The essay notes the formative importance of studies on power and inequality within urban governance in this predominantly critical field. However, it also considers how the cross-discipline is increasingly embracing legal geographic scholarship from within cultural, material and post-human geographies. Adopting the metaphor of the ‘spatial detective’, the essay situates legal geography as a way of examining law’s materialisation within space, considering the field’s methods, core concepts and the potential directions in which they may evolve.

Moving Forwards With Legal Geographies: Discussion.

2.40-4.20pm, Session 3 – Legal materialities

Embodied encounters and architects of neutrality in a courtroom in The Hague

Catherine Traynor (University of Leicester)

Based on a case study of ‘the heart of the international zone’ in ‘The Hague, International City of Peace and Justice’, this paper explores neutrality, geographically, materially and relationally. It is framed by the geographies of the built environment; objects and power; affect and emotion; organisational anthropology; and the critical geopolitics of identity and scale. Drawing from interviews, organisational tours and observations, the paper examines whether and how embodied accounts portray one form of neutrality as a ‘competence’ of people, places and things combined. Such competence involves the meticulous organisation of ‘truth’, ‘balance’, ‘principled decision-making’ and ‘openness’. Specifically, this paper considers how neutrality, and being ‘human,’ ‘subhuman or ‘superhuman’ are co-constructed through the organisational space of the ICTY (The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia). Finally, in the midst of a trial, the paper explores how the spatial practices of the courtroom and its occupants are both created by and delineate producers and consumers of neutrality. In so doing, it raises important questions about the relationship between international criminal law, society and space.

The law in ruins: co-production, nomic traces and the sedimented taskscapes of the world’s first factory

Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University)

The Legal Geography canon rests on a principle of co-production: namely that the social, the spatial and the legal act upon each other to form the ‘nomosphere’ (Delaney, 2010) and/or a ‘splice’ (Blomley, 2003). This paper will seek – through application of such thinking to a case study – to reframe the co-productive triumvirate, as matter, discourse and practice, and thereby align the co-production model towards a more processual and relational understanding of ‘worlding’ (Massey, 2005), pointing in particular to the generative role of human purpose, context and contingency in local instances of pragmatic co-production: Ingold’s (1993) notion of ‘taskscape’. Specifically, the presentation will advance its argument by examining the ‘entanglement’ (Hodder, 2012) of matter, purpose and normativity (which I take to include – but be wider than – legal discourse) in the founding, expansion, decline and ‘rescue’ of the world’s first factory scale cotton mill, at Cromford in Derbyshire, UK. If Legal Geography’s co-production model is right we should expect not just to find material traces of law in the physical world, but also evidence of the accommodation of law to site specific and circumstantial effects of topography, geology, commercial conventions and social mores. The presentation will thus focus upon explicating the physical sedimentation of a variety of taskscapes across the site’s 250 year life, and their attendant socio-spatial normativities, within the fabric and layout of the Mill complex.

The legal and the material: Legal characterizations and geographical circulations of radioactive waste in France and the UK

Romain J. Garcier (ENS Lyon, France)

This paper analyzes the role of legal categories in the management of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste generated by the decommissioning of nuclear power plants. The paper is informed by two case studies in France and in the UK, but set in a larger European context. Faced with soaring decommissioning costs and the daunting prospect of scarce disposal sites being clogged by massive amounts of waste, France and the UK, already the two largest ILW producers in Europe, have developed strategies to enable the diversion of radioactive waste away from specialized disposal sites. Such strategies are sponsored by governments, regulators and the European Commission. They are based on legal instruments that are, I argue, powerful geographical operators because they redefine the social persona of radioactive waste and allow waste to be moved and transformed in unprecedented fashion. From a theoretical perspective, this paper aims to create a conversation between the literature on materiality and waste, and the geo-legal literature. I argue that the legal framing of objects and materials under categories and classifications is integral to them being valued and managed – but that such a framing is always a contested, contingent process, amenable to various strategic priorities and very often detached from the actual physical properties of materials. This argument has important implications, for it displaces the spatial politics of materiality from the thing itself and its agency (Bennett, Gregson) to the legal tools used to endow materials with a social persona.

The end of territory: a materialist reading of the Republic of Nauru

Cait Storr (University of Melbourne, Australia)

This paper is part of a broader interrogation into the relationship between territory and statehood in international legal thought, explored through a reconstruction of the legal history of the Republic of Nauru, a so-called ‘small island developing state’ in the Pacific and ‘canary in the coalmine’ of climate change. Rather than departing from a now commonplace assumption of the otherness of postcolonial statehood, this paper will draw on key insights of Elden on the historical development of the concept of territory, and of Latour on the misapprehension of the subject / object distinction in Enlightenment thought, in order to rethink the narrative of Nauru from the period of German administration through to its profound existential precarity in the contemporary moment. In this alternative narrative, Nauruan phosphate will be treated as an actant not only on Nauruan development but on international law itself. It will be concluded that if its precarity is to be diagnosed as something other than terminal, Nauru may be better conceptualised not as a postcolonial state, but as a state that demonstrates the playing out to conclusion of the flawed logic of nature / culture inscribed by modern statehood. It is suggested that in order to contribute meaningful responses to the precarity faced by small island states in the Anthropocene, legal geography may need to take account of new materialist approaches to structures of legal thought.

Competing rationalities of urban governance: law, administration and material power in the case of governing car parking in Tallinn, Estonia

Tauri Tuvikene (University College London)

This paper discusses the often incongruous relationship between legal thinking and administrative, material and political rationalities through the analysis of the politics of parking regulations. The study on the introduction of paid parking in 1993 and making it governable over the twenty years period in Tallinn, Estonia shows how law can fail to function, how administrative tools could be framed illegal and unconstitutional, how material artefacts escape the legal methods devised to regulate them and political interests can and often do influence the legal thinking and practice. Thus, on the one hand, the paper argues for the importance of considering the often ignored legal documents and practices in the urban governance while, on the other hand, the paper argues that law has to confront various other rationalities that might escape law’s and law practitioners’ desires and goals. The archival research, media analysis, studies of court cases and interviews in Tallinn over a seven months period in 2012 brought out a number of contradictory associations between law and other socio-material spheres. I would like to discuss two moments and their analytical implications in the paper. First, the study in Tallinn showed how the materiality of a parked car renders the established legal logics difficult to follow, suggesting thus the need to attend to how the practices of law are influenced by the often ‘uncooperative’ (Bakker, 2003) materiality. Second, the post-socialist construction of ‘state-phobia’ (Foucault, 2008) produced a political atmosphere that, among other effects, helped to render the use of wheel clamps for parking regulation unconstitutional suggesting thus the need to attend to the interplay between social and political processes and the legal deliberation.


Photo credit:


Gazing up, looking down: following cathedral stone back to its source

“Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the property of spaces and the possibilities of time.”

Jacques Rancière (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics, Continuum: London, p. 13.


You’re standing in the vast nave of Exeter Cathedral, staring up at the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England.

“When visiting such places most of us have gazed in awe at lofty stone arches and intricately carved tracery, each paying tribute to the masons who have fashioned them with loving care. Few amongst us, however, have given a passing thought to the men who provided them with their raw materials by working deep underground, enduring conditions of extreme hardship and danger, to wrest the stone from its natural bed” (Scott & Gray n.d.: 1)

In a previous post I’ve written about the after-life of stone fragments released (or prised) from crumbling ruins [here]. In contrast, in this post I will wander Beer Quarry Caves – the origin point of stone blocks that went into many of the grandest Medieval English cathedrals – in the company of a tour guide, walking through the vast underground spaces from which the cathedral’s rock was hewn and thinking about the possibilities of animating absent quarrymen, their toil and their stone prize.

Beer Quarry Caves, in East Devon were founded by the Romans in AD50 and then worked continuously for nearly two thousand years. The Roman entrance sits beside the Norman one, slightly apart – a few feet – and yet a thousand years too, the intruding rays of sunlight revealing thousands of pick marks on each threshold, in each case the ancient scrapes of very long ago. The Roman’s quarried into the cliffs from landward, at first in open workings and then following the ¼ mile wide seam of this 65 million year old chalk limestone underground, beneath the burden of 100 feet of overlying rock. In doing so, generation by generation, they and their successors inched forward a trail of Cathedral-like voids of excavated space: the pitch-black darkness now the spent inverse of the evacuated beautiful creamy-white, fine textured limestone won from this strata’s 13 foot seam of desire.

The Bishops of Exeter leased the quarries for centuries – but the reformation in 1540 saw the collapse of ecclesiastical demand for Beer Stone, and for a while the mine fell silent, then finding more modest secular (and local) uses for it, with some resurgence in the Victorian thirst for urban church building. Production finally ceased in 1920, leaving a 75 acre underground labyrinth comprised of sturdy stone pillars and the void spaces between: the extracted stone now elsewhere: dried, hardened and discoloured by centuries of exposure to sky.

What is there to see in the dark?

As Strangleman (2013) notes, a mine erases itself, though fulfilment (and exhaustion) of its purpose. It is a place at which there is nothing to see as such. The extracted stone is normally the story – and the places created with it – as Knoop & Jones noted back in 1938 the histories of stone are of their use, not their production.

The recorded story of Beer Stone is of its diffusion, its mobility (by sea) – Beer stone recorded on masons’ stock rolls at London Bridge (1350), Rochester Castle (1368) and Westminster Abbey (early 1400s), the result of impressive networks of supply. Tracing these networks is a challenge in itself, a trail only partially satisfied by ancient archives, as Edensor has argued. Seeking to explicate the networks by which metropolitan Manchester’s stone found its way into (being) the heart of that Victorian city,  Edensor set out to trace stone’s urban materiality: seeking out the relations and the consequences of the mineral ‘stuff-ness’ of cities and their buildings, and adopting multiple methods to find the “multiple traces of other time-spaces … [amidst]… an affective and sensual encounter with materiality that promotes empathy with other times, people, events and non-human agents.” (450) This tracing takes Edensor (and us) to the stone-source, the quarry: a former ‘workspace’ (literally worked-space) – a space made by work.

At Beer Quarry Caves the remains of quarrying tools from Roman era onwards, found within spoil filled chambers, testify to a day in day out playing out of working lives, alongside the working marks, scrapes, scratches, spoil, candle burns and graffiti. Walking into the workings is to walk amongst eras of excavation within paces of each other – but out striding as spectator the inch by inch creep of the working faces: Roman arches, then the more rudimentary square openings of the Saxons, then a turn into the expanded halls of the Normans, all adjacent to hundreds of subsequent years of steady workings up to 1920, and connected up by the mine’s poly-era workways, and their ‘robbed pillars’ showing the scars of subsequent trimming of stone from these ancient bulwarks, the quick winning of stone by shaving it from the pillar by sawing the one remaining connecting face, rather than an arduous six (as entailed in cutting a block free from virgin rockbed).

Here – in this gloom – is human/matter relationality: the pragmatism of ‘corner cutting’, the working lives and family fortunes entwined in the prising out of this stone.  These traces speak to the toil at this place, as does the following scrawl, scratched into a pillar in angry Norman French deep within the workings:

 “Master mason, you built your cathedral towards heaven

With stone that was quarried from hell.”

But in what sense can we know this toil? What illuminates these voids? What creates the experience of being there? How much hangs on the interlocutor and the narration of this place? Without lighting, without a pathway through the cave complex this would be meaningless unilluminated space – truly dark void. This place becomes animated by our guide’s (re)performance of the lives of this quarry, his eloquent foregrounding of background, of revealing the worked – made – space of this subterranean honeycomb: the incidental cathedral-like spaces of this evacuated rock mass.

Our guide’s incantations make us think of the 15 hours a day, 6 days a week toil, and of a quarryman presenting a four tonne quarried block to the foreman – the ‘touchstone’ – at the end of the lightless day – only to be paid if the rock ‘rang true’ in retort to his expert strike upon it. Our guide also emotes, narrating centuries of local antagonism, speaking a bitterness towards the productive focus of the Bishopric, and its driving of production at this site in the Middle Ages, of the collapse of a piece of the quarry roof in 1758 response to a surface explosion – 48 men and one boy killed, the owner’s only question in response to that news: “Have we lost any horses?”

There is ancestral bitterness directed at the masons too. An up-welling of the ages-old division between the local quarrymen and the far better paid stone masons who would often visit the site, sourcing blocks and working them underground in their softer – still moist – form. The secrecy of the masons kept the local quarrymen at bay, keeping to their brotherhood their valuable stone carving skills. It was not until 1856 that one – William Cawley – finally became a stone mason – entering the brotherhood using a community collection given to William’s grandmother after her husband was killed during a local smuggling accident in 1801.

And that smuggling – our guide told us – also still resonated within the culture of the local village and of its underground quarry. Brandy from France, Port from Spain and Portugal, hidden in the darkness sought out by customs men, deadly skirmishes and all. And to this day, the fisherman of the village chide our guide that he is the descendant of a customs man. There is then – via our evocative guide and his story-telling – a sense of a lingering symbiotic connection between the caves and the local village, and that there is much that is left behind in the caves, sedimented there:  discarded tools, voids, relations, attitudes, grievances and their attendant affects. And quarrying phrases too, now hovering – decontextualized – in everyday speech: ‘To broach’ – to prick, indent or furrow the surface of stone with a narrow-pointed stone chisel. ‘Stone deaf’ – occupational deafness from the thunderous echo of constant blows, iron against stone. ‘Worth a candle’ – each quarryman having to buy five animal tallow candles per day, and decide whether an area of rock was worth the effort – and cost – of the meagre lighting to be brought to its working.

Visiting the past?

Norman working area Beer Quarry

And so, we stand as an audience listening to these stories – but are we communing with stone, with the quarrymen or just with our narrator? Standing in the spot of the 1758 roof collapse we know – and feel – nothing of this incident until told of it. We walk Roman to Saxon to Norman in the space of a few strides. The arch work changes, that is our only sign, the stone is uniform throughout. This area’s substance is its void. This place is a curation of absence.

High and Lewis (2007) in their attack upon urban exploration, reject industrial experiential tourism, asserting that “Spelunking can be read as akin to dancing on a grave” (29). For them such spectatorship completes an insensitivity twice meted out by the non-working class, first in bringing about closure, second in the spectatorship of a “post-industrial necrology.” (29). But High and Lewis’ attack on urban explorers for a decontextualized appropriation, of generic – disconnected – fetishized images, assumes that no attempt is being made to connect with the specificity of a former workplace, its tasks and histories. Strangleman (2013), defends modern attempts to construct an engagement with sites of past labour – and sees in short-term engagement with them – each generation making its methods, finding its own way to take something from the past, and pursue (each generation for its own reasons) a ‘remembrance of lost work’ – there are indeed many ways of remembering.

A trip to Beer Quarry Caves shows that a good guide, using the time and space of passage through a place and a deft unfurling of its stories, can animate even the darkest, emptiest subterranean void.

But, in our journey back towards the mouth of this mine there is a spectre to meet, the (as Derrida styled it) ‘spectre of Marx’. Our guide frames this place in the conventional politico-materialist language of people actualising through work, through actions upon matter, socio-economic relations of production and the progressive movement of distinct historical epochs – all the raison d’etre of amateur industrial archaeology. As such this framing alludes to “concrete political forms” (Cheah, 2010: 89) flowing back to Marx’s dialectical materialism (that history is headed somewhere, that it embodies conflict between distinct social groupings, that history is driven by relations with matter and power). Edensor’s materialism is more vitalist, and in seeking to speak the alterity of urban stone (its flux over time, ungovernability of matter, its otherness and resistance to human dominion). Given that the human-labour-achievement-over-matter frame remains so dominant it is perhaps no surprise that ‘new’ materialists get accused of forgetting the toils of labouring people. New materialists would point out – perhaps – that human labour is not being denied, but rather shown alongside a much wider constellation of factors and forces. But that does result in a de-emphasis, the moral-political implications of which perhaps need working through more.

We leave our guide now, he’s back at the entrance, gathering the next tour group, getting them in the mood by passing around a Roman coin found recently near the entrance. Our guide knows both what he will say, and how to pace it for maximum effect. Whether in the bravura of performance or genuine ancestral angst, he will once again take the opportunity to colourfully re-assert the quarryman over the masons, the cathedral, the sky and the surface world.  He will once again weave thing and story in a way that activates some slight – but compelling – sense of others’ (and our own) material relations.


Beer Quarry Caves Ltd (n.d.) Beer Quarry Caves –

Cahill, K. (2008) Beer Quarry Caves – Global & Western Media Productions at:‎

Cheah, P. (2010) ‘Non-Dialectical Materialism’ in Coole, D. & Frost, S.A. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics, Duke University Press: London.

Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Vital urban materiality and its multiple absences: the building stone of central Manchester’ Cultural Geographies, 20, 447-465.

High, S & Lewis, D.W. (2007) Corporate Wasteland: The Landscape and Memory of De-Industrialisation, New York.

Knoop, D. & Jones, J.P. (1938) ‘The English Medieval Quarry’ The Economic History Review, 9 (1), 17-37.

Scott, J. & Gray, G. (n.d.) Out of the Darkness: A brief history and description of the Old Stone Quarry, Beer, Axminster Printing co. Ltd

Strangleman, T. (2013) ‘“Smokestack Nostalgia”, “Ruin Porn” or Working-Class Obituary: The role and meaning of deindustrialised representation’ International Labour and Working Class History, 84, 23-37.


Tracing as trivial pursuit: Inverness, Collection Point B, 1.44pm, 7 August 1997

eastgate clock wide

 “Always look at the whole: what that thing is that gives you such an impression, and undo it, distinguishing it into its cause, its matter, its point, the time within which it must come to a stop.”

Marcus Aurelius

Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher 

Meditations (c180AD) xii.18

A postcard from somewhere I’ve never been

I’ve never been to Inverness and have no particular reason to think that I will ever go there. No doubt it has its charms – as all coastal towns do – but it means nothing to me, and I have next to no knowledge of it. It’s somewhere in Scotland, on the east coast, and quite northerly. People live there. They are much like me. And they have an Argos, or at least they did one lunchtime in 1997.

Thursday, 7th August 1997 was a long day. In Inverness the sun rose at 5.25am that morning and would not set until 9.19pm. During the 15 hours, 53 minutes and 19 seconds of daylight, the then oldest man in Britain died, Princess Diana started her holiday with Dodi Fayed and a sudden movement of an insufficiently tethered consignment of 16 pallets of denim en route to the Dominican Republic caused a DC-8-61F cargo plane to crash land during its lunchtime takeoff at Miami airport. In its frantic descent the out of control plane narrowly missed a Budweiser Distribution Facility and finally came to rest in the car park of a local shopping mall, destroying 26 cars in the ensuing fireball.

Meanwhile, back in Inverness, amongst a plethora of other non-newsworthy events that day, someone, for some reason, purchased a copy of the Trivial Pursuit game at 1.44pm in the city’s own local mall.

I know this because I have the receipt. I found it Sellotaped to the inside face of the game’s upper lid when I pulled open the box to play that same copy last weekend. This essay is about the ways in which I have tried to understand the odd feelings that struck me as I unexpectedly came across this small document, lying dormant inside ‘my’ game’s box.

In writing this essay I’m fully aware that this artefact is but one of millions of its kind generated each year. It has no special qualities other than that circumstances have combined to provoke me to subject this iteration of this everyday thing to greater scrutiny that it usually warrants.

Ian Bogost, writing of his take on object oriented ontology, calls for the practice of ‘ontography’, an endeavour in which the action and constitution of objects (and their relationship with other objects) is charted, or more specifically conjectured. As Bogost (2012) puts it, the aim should be to write:

“the speculative fictions of [objects’] processes, of their unit operations. Our job is to get our hands dirty with grease, juice, gunpowder and gypsum. Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger”

So, in what follows I offer up some speculative fictions for this humble Argos receipt. Trying to linger longer than convention dictates that I should, giving it more attention than it ‘deserves’ and seeing what I come up with. This involves applying different perspectives, scales and genres – none any more important or determinative than any other.

‘There are Eight million stories in the Naked City’

She perhaps stood at the brink of the Eastgate Shopping Centre and waited for many minutes before stepping forth across the threshold. The sun was bright in the street and her eyes adjusted slowly as she went inside. She had been to the bank and withdrawn her savings, carrying the money in a folded up newspaper that she had hurriedly purchased for that purpose. Entering Argos a few moments later she found a quiet corner of the shop floor, extracted two crisp £20 notes from the bundle and joined the queue to place her order. She’d found out a few days before just how much this game would cost (£37.99) and she still found it hard to accept that that really could be true, but it was, and she wanted the best for her son. And the best was this set of 4800 answers.

At 1.44pm precisely she paid up and then shuffled into position, at Collection Point B standing at a position midway between the bulbous display monitor hanging from the ceiling, and the collection counter. After a few moments her number flashed, on the fat dull green and black CRT screen. She then collected her purchase and quietly left the shop. The fresh faced assistant at the counter had put the receipt in the bag. The number 72 bus then took her home, and once there she took the receipt and the box out from the bag and laid them on the dining table. With the edge of a pen lid she then scored a line across the cellophane, cautiously unwrapped and opened the box before carefully fixing the receipt into the underside of the lid. Then she reassembled the package, covering it in Simpsons themed wrap and attached a modest gift tag, written with the words “To Kevin, with love forever, your Mum (I’m sorry)” on top, slightly off-centre so as not to occlude any of Bart’s faces. She then placed the gift on the table and walked out of the family home for the last time.

‘To a hammer everything looks like a nail’ (Bogost 2012)

The rubber soles paused at the transition from warm paving slab to the cooler ceramic floor tiles within the shopping centre. Then, with a cautious step to adjust for differential traction, those soles shuffled onward and into the hardy microfibre caress of the store. Here enfolded paper was unfurled, leaves loosening their grip on each other, yielding individual slips of exquisitely ink printed watermarked and silver-slither stitched parchment. These were then presented through an invisible downdraft column of mechanically chilled air by a cantilever of sweaty palm-flesh, and quickly ushered onward into the still air darkness of a smooth plastic cash drawer, held taught there by its stainless steel retention spring. Then chug-whir, a spool spun deep within the till in obedience to the command of an electro-mechanical jolt. Ink was sprayed in regimented dance, an array of dots building up line by line as the paper spewed up into the cavernous room. Then, rip. Cellulose fibres cleanly severed by internal blade. A receipt was born. An arm movement then scooped the paper slip upward, transferring it to another, more clammy hand which then – moving in an approximate arc – transited to the statically charged air hanging stale beneath the cathode ray tube, and its phosphorous glow. Here a moment of local stillness, amidst a sea of sound and movement. Presently a box rode down a rubber incline, slid across a smooth white surface, was briefly raised up by another fleshy crane and then tumbled into the spangle shaded caressing walls of a plastic bag where it nestled snugly, pinned between the inner wall of the bag and the cellophane wrapper of the box. The surfaces embraced in mutual congress as the rubber soles move back out into the street, to the grey metal pole with the characters ‘bus stop’ affixed at its skyward end, and thereafter via the added  frisson of a bumpy bus ride, to a flat wooden plain upon which cellophane was then flayed from glossed cardboard. The box was opened. Air was exchanged and the receipt was adhered to the cardboard, where it then sat in ageless darkness, shielded against ultraviolent light and oxidation for 16 years before suddenly encountering daylight again.

The invisible

Whether they realise it or not, our unnamed shopper and her receipt met in a rich – but invisible – symbolic realm that shaped the form, existence and experience of the street, the shop, the commodity and the act of exchange that day. 1.44pm: a creation of the Summer Time Act 1916. 7 August: the legacy of Augustus and the Roman insertion of summer months. 1997: a Christian inheritance. VAT number. 30 day returns policy. Scottish bank notes. Bus deregulation. Sanitation services. Anti-slip mats. Building Regulations. Risk assessment. Pension funds. Planning permission. Street Litter Control Zones. CCTV. The Producer Responsibility (Packaging Waste) Regulations 1997, Total Quality Management, The Shops, Offices & Railway Premises Act 1963, British Standards, The Consumer Credit Act 1974. The list could go on, for many pages…

‘Beam me up Scotty’

What struck me most as I opened the box last weekend was how that receipt gave me precise co-ordinates in both time and space. All that was missing was a time machine. If I had one the receipt would give me a fix on an event that I had no part in. Travelling there (and then) in my blue box I could materialise Doctor Who-like at the moment of ‘my’ Trivial Pursuit’s purchase, and follow its purchaser home and witness it’s ‘box-fresh’ unveiling. That idea then got me thinking about all the unknowns about ‘my’ game’s provenance, all the events, material processes and elements in circulation, before, during and after 1:44pm on 7 August 1997. It made the world seem both big and small. Particularly as I conjectured the circumstances in which ‘my’ iteration of this product had somehow thereafter found its way South, and presented itself for purchase in a Sheffield charity shop. It had then lain unopened in my attic for a few more years, until remembered by happenstance last weekend.

What will be the final destination of this thing? Could we ever account for all of its stations, or for all of the layers at which its story and context could be read? The answer is a simple ‘no’. And speculation is probably as close as we can get to making any selection from the multitudinous layers meaningful in human terms. The best I can do is invent narratives and/or material or symbolic contexts each within which to somehow ground and know this slip of paper.

The difficulty of the exercise is that this mundane occurrence, lacks identity as an event. Effort has to be applied to make it noteworthy, and in the doing so something necessarily gets superimposed; colour and/or order are added. As Highmore (2011) puts the difficulty (in the course of his persuasive search for an aesthetics of the ordinary):

“But when there is no remark to be made, no event to be marked out, then where would you possibly start, and where could you possibly end, in giving an account of the ordinary?”

At an earlier point in his book he helpfully invokes Michel de Certeau’s notion of a “science of singularity” – case study method by another name – and points to fiction as creating a space in which attention can linger on features of the everyday which would otherwise fall “through the cracks between disciplines”. Again he invokes de Certeau who saw fiction, and its scope for creating “indexes of particulars”, as a haven of representational space for the:

“everyday virtuosities that science doesn’t know what to do with and which become the signatures, easily recognised by readers, of everyone’s micro-stories.” (de Certeau 1984: 70).

The vignettes above tried to sketch some of the micro-stories (or unit-operations – take your pick of the term you prefer) of the unknown shopper, the surfaces and the abstract systems brought together in the everyday event of buying a board game. In spirit I had Georges Perec in mind, and also the children’s fiction of Alan Arhlberg’s Gaskitt Family stories, like The Man Who Wore All His Clothes. Perec and Arhlberg both present an overabundance of incidental detail, and in doing so cause the density of the everyday world to tumble into view. Objects step forward centre stage, silent processes are heard, lives, bodies and surfaces interact and the chaos and approximation of perception and communication are laid bare.

But does the attempt to narrate or otherwise spotlight these sub-events actually bring them into view? The irony is that, as I look back, pulling this piece together has rather worked to erase the odd feeling of poignancy that struck me when I first encountered the receipt last week. Opening the box let daylight in. Given enough time that daylight would erase the ink and also work to destroy the cellulose bonds within the paper itself. Left long enough the receipt would pass onward from illegibility to deterioration to dust. And, so too as I subject this slip of paper to excessive attention its hinted specialness fades in the neon light of familiarity. It recedes back into the background, where it and most things probably belong and/or are condemned to sit.


Ahlberg, A. (2001) The Man Who Wore All His Clothes, Walker Books: London.

Bogost, I. (2011) Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, University of Minnesota Press:  Minneapolis.

Cockpit Voice Recorder Database (n.d.) ‘7 August 1997 – Fine Air 101’

de Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press: London.

Highmore, B. (2011) Ordinary Lives – studies in the everyday, Routledge: London.

Perec, G. (1978) Life – A User’s Manual, Random House: London

Photograph: Eastegate Shopping Centre’s Noah’s Ark clock – hourly the automaton monkey climbs the Giraffe’s neck and strikes the bell:

‘Painting the sky brilliant white with Titania’s ubiquitous dust’ – cautious thoughts on atmospheric modification

‘They came in tiny parachutes

dissolving through the atmosphere

From planes not seen or heard’

Slab (1987) ‘Undriven Snow’


This blog essay is about the atmosphere, specifically the alien-ness of matter in the atmosphere. It is about attitudes towards the vastness of an uninhabitable portion of our world and specifically the material strangeness invoked by news of a gravity defying plan to inject earth into the sky.

Sky – the final frontier

Peter Sloterdijk (2009) has characterised the twentieth century as the era of ‘explication’ of the atmosphere. In his book he points out how during the last century the sky came to be knowable, occupy-able and weaponise-able in ways previously beyond comprehension. Before the ‘modern’ era, the sky was unattainable, majestic and unbounded. The sky was heavenly, or at least a transition to a ‘higher’ realm beyond. Up was blessed, down was cursed. Sky was rampant ‘other’ – nature bringing events to man (life giving rain and sun, and death bringing storm and drought) at times and places of its choosing.

What Sloterdijk presents is a glimpse of how the heavens were brought down to earth, rendered human (or at least brought within the reach of human influence) during the last 100 years. He builds his argument around the advent of airborne warfare, and specifically chemical warfare (direct attack against atmosphere’s life sustaining properties). I instead want to look at human interaction with the sky from the perspective of atmospheric engineering, specifically via one ubiquitous powder, nano particles of titanium dioxide.

Titania’s white power

I’ve been preparing a lecture this week in which I’m trying to show the breadth of environmental law in a very short teaching slot. I’ve chosen titanium dioxide as a case study, and I’m really glad that I’ve taken my investigation in that direction. Because TiO2 offers even more holistic weirdness than I’d thought it would.

Titanium dioxide (otherwise known as Titania), is a mineral pigment made from titanium ore. The ore is extracted from the ground in vast open mines, it is then shipped around the world to large energy (and acid) guzzling production sites. The resulting pigment gives plastics and rubber opacity and whiteness and is used in a diverse range of everyday products such as art paints, printing inks, paper, ceramics, textiles, glass, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and food (where its presence is as food additive ‘E171’). Our modern world would look very different without this white power additive. In the US per capita titanium dioxide ‘consumption’ is 3.4kg per year (est. 1991).

Titanium is the ninth most common element in the earth’s crust, and over 90% of extracted ore is processed into millions of tonnes of titanium dioxide pigment. It was adopted in the twentieth century as a replacement for the toxic pigment, white lead. First extracted from ore in 1908, commercial pigment production commenced in 1918. In the 1990s it was discovered that titanium dioxide when irradiated by sunlight has photocatalytic and hydrophilic effects which have now been commercialised into coatings that rendering glass ‘self-cleaning’, and enable coated paving slabs in Japan to ‘eat’ atmospheric pollution (Emsley 2012).

Painting the sky

It is a proposal to inject millions of tons of titanium dioxide into the upper atmosphere as a way of tackling climate change that has caught my attention. Ker Than (2012) describes a plan proposed by Davidson Technology, to disperse the white power using high-altitude balloons so as to form a sunscreen layer a millionth of a millimetre thick that would absorb and reflect sunlight, offsetting some of the climate changing global warming effects attributable to greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere from other human activities. Titanium dioxide has the highest refractive index amongst known materials – it is the whitest of whites (although some TiO2 nano-particles are actually transparent: TDMA 2012).

Than’s depiction of the delivery method, of hoses flying up skyward, paints a surreal picture – very Dali-esque (or Heath-Robinson, take your pick):

For Davidson’s project, a slurry containing titanium dioxide would be pumped skyward via flexible pipes, which would be hoisted aboard unmanned balloons flying about 12 miles (20 kilometers) high. A “hypersonic nozzle” would then spray the slurry as fine particles into Earth’s upper atmosphere.”

Than also notes that this would be a long term project – the injection having to continue for centuries until atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases reduce (which would require changes to on-the-ground manufacturing and carbon dependency).

According to Than Davidson estimates his own plan’s costs as around $900 million per year, plus up to $3 billion per year for the titanium dioxide. Presently (2010 figures) world production of this mineral powder is just under 4 million tons (1.48 million from US production sources, 2.19 million from China), with five multinational companies having a 64% market share (Mowat 2012). Taking the current price per ton as around $3,000 (Hemmerling 2011) this suggests the plan would require an extra 1 million ton of titanium dioxide to be produced each year, with an attendant 20% increase in ore mining, processing and distribution of this white dust to the remote balloon launch sites from which it would be shuttled and pumped up into the sky.

Matter out of place       

As an environmental lawyer what strikes me about this potential interplay between mineral earth and sky is the fine line between pollution and ‘solution’. As Mary Douglas (1966: 50) said, dirt is “matter out of place”. It’s all about context. Intentionally injecting titanium dioxide into the atmosphere is portrayed in Davidson’s plan as environmental augmentation of the air, yet more often the titanium dioxide industry has been framed as a polluter of land and water. Depending on the precise production techniques used titanium dioxide production waste includes dilute sulphuric acid, solid residue (chloride or sulphate salts), ore and pigment dust and gaseous emissions (Lane 1991).

The titanium dioxide industry was one of the first manufacturing industries to be singled out for special legislative attention by the European Commission. In 1972 Corsica brought legal proceedings against an Italian titanium dioxide plant following sufferance of ‘red mud’ discharges afflicting the Mediterranean coast (production of each ton of the white powder produces a greater volume of waste that has to be disposed of, traditionally via pumping it into the sea)(Hague 1992). The Commission was concerned that inter-state disputes about this aquatic pollution could undermine the harmony of European trade in this increasingly important industrial commodity and thus a Directive was issued in 1978 to harmonise how each member state should regulate these plants and their emissions. Subsequent Directives focused upon environmental monitoring of the effects of permitted disposal routes for this waste, including dumping on land or injecting it into the soil.

These measures were early instances of international environmental law – born of a realisation that drifting plumes of red mud have no notion of national borders. As with the sea, so with the sky. Pollution emissions or remedial nano particle infusions into the sky would also need international consensus before emission, for clouds will drift where they will.

Aerography and appreciating the alien-ness of the sky

In the twentieth century we came to view ‘airspace’ as national territory, rather than private property. Technically, under English common law principles (as recorded by William Blackstone in 1769), a landowner owns the column of air above his land, right up to the ‘top’ of the sky. Whilst legislation abrogates this principle in order to allow aviation to cross his airspace, no provision has yet been made to allow the installation of an upper atmosphere sun shield above plots of land. Outer space (the space beyond atmosphere) is via international treaty terra nullis, owned by no-one. But in theory at least airspace within the atmosphere is private property of the surface owner.

Ownership of the sky is pretty irrelevant unless you can defeat gravity. The sky is not naturally inhabitable or meaningfully possessible. Matter is not normally installable in the sky. Gravity is a timeless force that normally keeps our thoughts, actions and concerns at or near ground level. But the titanium dioxide plan, is another instance of the gravity defying explication of the sky that Sloterdijk has conceptualised, and if ever implemented would have material consequences upon the ground (more titanium ore mining, more processing, more soil and water pollution, more energy consumption) and also novel legal ramifications in terms of sky-ownership.

Perhaps the danger here is that – via this march of explication – we are trying to conceptually and physically approach the sky as we do land. Introducing a collection of essays acknowledging geography’s fixation with the geo (i.e. land and matter)Jackson & Fannin (2011) speculate on what a genuinely understanding ‘aerography’ would need to look like, and how it would to differ from geography in order to break free of what Henri Bergson called ‘the logic of solids’.

We would laugh if anyone were to suggest that the sky was a solid, but if we are at the brink of demarking it as territory into which material can be permanently inserted then we are at risk of transposing that solids logic into an alien world to which it may never be suited, regardless of the reach of our gravity defying technologies.

The permanent colonisation of sky-space by matter could also, of course, have unforeseeable chemical and/or climactic effects. In time would have to reap what we sow: the atmosphere might resist the explicatory logic of the human plan and reassert its sovereignty of the sky.  Perhaps here we can leave the last word to another Titania, the queen of the fairies in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act II, Scene i):

“…the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.”


References and sources:

Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London

Emsley, J. (2012) ‘Fujishima is suggested as a possible Nobel Prize winner “for the discovery of photocatalytic properties of titanium dioxide known as the Honda-Fujishima Effect” Science Watch,

Hague, N. (1992) Manual of Environmental Policy: the EC and Britain, Longman: London.

Hemmerling, K. (2011) ‘Titanium Dioxide could give these 10 stocks a boost’

Jackson, M & Fannin, M (2011) ‘Letting geography fall where it may – aerographies address the elemental’ Environment & Planning D: Society & space, 29, 435-444

Lane, D.A. (1991) ‘Pollution caused by waste from the titanium dioxide industry – Directive 89/428’ Boston College International and Comparative Law Review 14(2) 425-434

Mowat, R. (2012) ‘TiO2 Titanium Dioxide Companies’

Sloterdijk, P. (2009) Terror From the Air, Semiotext(e): Los Angeles (trans. Amy Patton & Steve Corcoran)

Than, K. (2012) ‘Sunscreen in the sky? Reflective particles may combat warming’ National Geographic Daily News

TDMA (Titanium Dioxide Manufacturers Association) (2012) About Titanium Dioxide TDMA web site:

Photo credit: Nikki Clayton –

‘Everywhere is somewhere’ – thoughts on passing through

“Good, yes, you’ve done well

Here is a small prize

The history of the world”

The Gang of Four (1982) ‘The History of the World’

I’m told that there’s a mediocre swashbuckling film from the 1950s with an inadvertent claim to fame. A viewer who knows what and when to look away from the foreground of the film’s harbour-side action will spot a Bedford van chugging up a hillside road on the far side of the estuary. I love that incongruence, the everyday bleeding into the scene despite the best efforts of the film crew to stage the scene for 15th century authenticity.

I love watching old films with outdoor action sequences. Not because of the story-line, but because of the incidental opportunity to see people, cars, buildings passing through the frame. As the camera pans on and each bystander leaves the shot I wonder what it was like to be them, where they were going, what was on their mind, who they were and what those accidentally captured slices of their lives can show and say.

Perhaps for a moment I feel that I’m passing along those streets, that I’m getting a glimpse of real day-to-day lives being lived in a moment of the past.

Child development experts (of a structuralist hew) tell us that infant spatial awareness passes through a number of key stages – from the egotic to the abstract. For Piaget and his ilk, early world perception is purely egotic. The toddler see’s the physical world around him only to the extent that it is an extension of himself and his support needs. Nothing else is or can be known if it has no connection to that survival preoccupation. But as the child grows this world-picturing becomes first nodal, acknowledging the independence of the surrounding world, but still from an instrumental point of view (i.e. ‘how do I get to the shop that has the sweets that I want?’) but then in time the picture becomes fully abstract. The world is accepted as exterior and independent, something to be encountered, and somewhere that exists even when not being looked at or used by the viewer.

I recall two moments in my childhood when my outlook moved onward along that axis. First, a family journey somewhere in the mid Devon countryside, travelling between a succession of villages. Looking out of the car window I saw a group of children standing on a street corner playing. The scene at first made me think, ‘why have these people come to this strange place that only exists for passing-through?’ and then reflexively it dawned on me that they would think the same of me and my street corner where they to drive past my home. At the time it seemed a very profound revelation. Writing it now it doesn’t. But that shift from egotic/nodal to fully accepting of independence of the world and the lives in it was important. An adult who could still only see the world through their own eyes and position would be missing so much…

The second occasion was at secondary school. A road lay beyond the school fence. Standing in the playground at break, looking out I would watch the cars and lorries trundle past. By this stage I was fully aware of the independence of those vehicles, and their part of the world from my needs and control. Indeed, I think watching those cars and lorries going about their business emphasised to me the smallness and insignificance of any one person’s place in the world. That baker’s lorry, those people driving to work, that birth-life-death cycle playing itself out around me was universal, timeless and unstoppable. Yes, this was the moment that I developed a sense of system. A sociological epiphany of soughts.

So, as I seek out the Bedford van climbing that hill in that film I’m marvelling at the film crew’s inability to fully control their event, I’m trying to cast myself momentarily into the life-world of the driver and I’m conjecturing the plot of the delivery route that he was driving, the history, purpose and fate of the organisation he was working for and the arrangements by which the loaves of bread wobbling in the back of his van came to be made, shipped, sold and consumed. That journey had consequences, but they were ‘only’ every-day effects. The bread was delivered and eaten. No one would remember that particular loaf, or that particular delivery journey. Yet, this one iteration of the journey – a journey repeated without record on many thousands of other almost identical other occasions – was accidentally captured for posterity.

A humdrum moment frozen in the background of an unremarkable film, but for me it’s the most fascinating bit.

Photo source:

Aural history – time travel, double glazing and the lost sounds of the Seventies

“…how do we listen to sounds never before noticed, sounds long vanished or sounds that are not sounds, exactly, but more like the fluctuations of light, weather and the peculiar feeling that can arise when there is a strong sense of place?” (Toop, 2007: 112)

This blog-essay is about everyday soundscapes, what causes them, how they can be charted and why and how they disappear.

The drop forge in the valley

 “I remember lying in bed at night and listening to the drop forges drifting across the valleys.” (PoS 2012)

So recalls Martyn Ware, a founding member of the first incarnation of Sheffield’s electro-pop pioneers The Human League. Ware accounts for the percussive influence of Sheffield’s then remaining heavy industry upon their early dystopian music, a musical transcription of the pounding of the city’s foundries’ drop forges which is particularly to the fore in their early song ‘Almost Medieval’ (1979). To this stentorian beat Phil Oakey narrates the tale of an unsettling journey back in time to the pre-modern era, thus:

 “step off the tarmac, there’s no stagecoach speed limit

 Behind the office swings the man on the gibbet…”

The point is made clear at the outset, for the League the past was grimmer (and grimier) than we might like to think, and everything was different there. In this early version of the world all the modern certainties are gone, and everything is degenerated. It is also sensorially different – it is a world of alien sights, smells and sounds. This is a “small world, dimly viewed through cataracts.”

I too caught a brief aural glimpse of Sheffield’s dull industrial thud when I first arrived here a decade ago. Early, on still summer mornings, already half awoken by vicious sunlight streaming through thin curtains, I would be fully roused by the kicking into life of the last remaining drop forge down in the valley. In response I bought blackout curtains and secondary double glazing. But still this behemoth found its way to me, the sheer force of this power press’s vibration through the neighbourhood’s ground and onward into the fabric of my home and the soft tissues of my head. After a couple of summers of annoyance the forge closed and eventually its structures were demolished. The site now sits empty and weed ridden, a scrub-gap between the local KFC and B&Q.

Listening again to ‘Almost Medieval’ a few weeks ago got me thinking about the soundscapes of my own past, and of their unattainability. The Human League portrayed their imagined trip back in time as considerably less than pleasurable. But it is the alien quality of the experience (rather than its repulsion) that intrigues me the most. In response to the song I recall a soundscape experienced from my childhood bedroom. A sound finding its way into that room via the windows. A particular set of sounds – cars ascending a gentle rise, driving up the valley in which my suburban home was situated. A particular car and engine tone, a particular interaction of rubber on tarmac, a particular reverberation of that sound within the funnel of the valley. This was all delivered into my bedroom until we got secondary double glazing (and a few years later proper double glazing – the old ‘crittall’ metal single glazed frames having finally been removed). On the arrival of these enhanced interfaces, those sounds faded from the sensory experience of being in that room. Only on summer days with the windows open would that outdoor soundscape tentatively venture inside again.

The impossibility of reclaiming soundscapes

So, I started wondering whether – if I went back to that house now and opened the window – would I hear that soundscape again?

I don’t think I would, and here’s why, a combination of reasons:

1)      As we age our hearing capabilities change. The range of our hearing recedes. Only the truly young can hear into the high pitch spectrum. So, if I went back now there are acoustic fractions of the soundscape that I simply could not register anymore, no matter how much I might want to.

2)      Cars have changed. So have their engines and the petrol inside them. Lead free fuel burns differently, engines are more powerful and the gentle rise is now achieved in lower gear than that prevalent in my childhood.

3)      There are more cars. There would be more traffic noise. A more complex set of sounds than the lone small car that I nostalgically imagine drifting past my window.

4)      The arrangement of gardens has changed. Many of the front garden trees have been removed to create car ports. Those that remain are bigger. Back gardens are now more paved, and the pigeon lofts at the top of many of them when I was young have decayed into nothing. All of these factors would result in a different echo profile for the car-sounds within that valley.

5)      Extension of the surrounding suburbs has reduced the proximity of that street to the countryside, resulting in fewer birds and their song (and less variety of those birds that are still there).

So, those sounds, and the environment that combined to produce and propagate them, have gone. Travelling in space to the place where those sounds once were will not achieve rediscovery of that soundscape, even if the double glazing is removed, or the window flung open. These then were the sounds of the Seventies, a product of a moment in time and its physical (and human) parts.

Sound and the Seventies

I recall also that there was a portion of that childhood soundscape that came only at night: Concorde’s sonic boom as its shot overhead Atlantic-ward. Unlike the gentle rumble of suburban traffic noise, the arrival of the sonic boom with the launch of Concorde’s supersonic trans Atlantic service from 1976 proved to be a very public, and hotly debated, development in the national soundscape, and noise pollution came to be THE pre-eminent environmental issue for much of that decade, before declining subsequently to its more recent ‘cinderella’ status.

During the late 1960s a number of developments co-incided to raise noise’s profile. Concorde and the ‘threat’ of supersonic aviation was one. The ‘great’ motorway building phase was another. In turn these developments led to new laws focussed on control of construction site noise, occupational noise exposure and principles of compensation for land blighted by these new noise-bearing transportation schemes. Meanwhile technical standards and controls started to appear by which the permitted noise emissions of vehicles and other machines came under control. Noise – for a while – was a very hot political topic.

I have a copy of a 1971 book, The Assaults on our Senses by John Barr. Evidently Mr Barr had already made something of a career out of chronicling the way that the modern world was dragging everything to hell, his previous work having been titled Derelict Britain. Barr’s 1971 book attempted a sensory engagement with environmental problems as they were then framed in public consciousness. First, he presented sight and squalor offending that dominant sense. Then he moved on to hearing, and the offence of noise. In doing so he drew a distinction between ‘noise on the ground’ and ‘noise in the air’. In his discourse upon aviation noise Barr was very much ‘of his time’, with anxieties about the imminent introduction of Concorde’s transatlantic flights, the feared impact of its sonic booms upon dairy herds and human mental health to the fore. Evocative campaign groups, long since gone, are name-checked in his book: the British Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (founded 1966), the Anti-Concorde Project (1967) and the UK Federation Against Aircraft Nuisance (1968).

But for Barr:

“Not even the thunderclaps of super-sonic airliners in the 70s will displace ground-level noise as the most continuously irritating, physically and psychologically damaging, ingredient of Britain’s urban climate” (71)

Barr draws a bleak picture of a world drowning in sound, of industrialists rubbing their hands with joy at the productive clamour of their workshops, and of a cacophony of cars. But amidst this assault on noise, Barr momentarily falters, acknowledging the habituation of most to the everyday sounds of life, and chillingly depicts the horror of pure silence, the sensory deprivation of a sound-proofed chamber in which a subject is left alone with only his heart beat, breathing and the movement of his eyelids as acoustic companion. Even Barr concedes that sometimes, some sound may be better than none at all.

But like Barr, most of the debate (and legislation) about noise, as originally and influentially framed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, still focuses resolutely on noise as ‘pollution’, noise as something undesirably and that threats to the tranquillity of silence. This approach remains evident in the urban noise mapping required by EU derived ambient noise mapping laws – the map as a register of zones requiring action (‘acoustical planning’) to reduce ambient noise and thereby improve human qualities of life.

Silence, and the individualisation of soundscapes was often what these laws and policies espoused. And here I think of Richard Sennett, who portrayed evidence of a widespread retreat from the public realm in his The Fall of Public Man (2003). Whilst he used the notion of individuals retreating into their homes and shutting out the ‘public’ world outside metaphorically, as symptomatic of a wider retreat from living with a public realm, we can actually take this image literally. There was a physical retreat, an attempt to block out the world beyond the private realm of the home: this was the rise of double glazing in the 1970s.

Yes the double glazing craze was partly driven by energy efficiency (the 1973 energy crises certainly focussed the minds of homeowners on their spiralling fuel costs), and a vague sense of being ‘modern’ via home improvement – but there was also much made of the new technology’s ability to muffle the home against the noise of the outside world too. It is no coincidence that the raft of compulsory purchase laws made in the early 1970s, and their calibration of compensation principles for homeowners afflicted in the wake of new motorway schemes and airport expansion often offered up double (sometimes triple) glazing as their recompense: the victim fortified indoors in the face of an unstoppable march of concrete laying outdoors.

Thus, modernism’s project aspired to a technocratic control over soundscapes, ambient sound as an unwanted by-product of unstoppable progress, an externality, something to be channelled, muffled, designed out by the technocrats, the planners and the lawyers.

Charting soundscapes

Yet in recent years due to a congruence of technology and aesthetic sensibilities, some ambient soundscapes have come to be seen as a resource to cherish, a facet of place to characterise and/or an engine of regeneration (the vibrant consumerist ‘buzz’ of the plaza anyone?). Alongside the established ranks of the motorway scheme’s acoustic engineer and the ‘noise policing’ of Environmental Health Officers  we now see poets, ‘sound-artists’ and other enthusiasts attempting to valorise ambient soundscapes. Notable projects have included The London Sound Survey , the British Library’s UK Soundmap project and the Positive Soundscapes Project. These initiatives (and many others) create a strange mesh of acoustic science and aesthetic poetics.

There is a conservationist sensibility to the fore here – born of a realisation that soundscapes can be lost for ever. And this sentiment can come to the surface now, because technology enables us to have a realistic stab at capturing soundscapes in a meaningful way. Smartphone apps, social media and digital recorders enable collaborative archival ‘capture’ of samples of soundscapes for posterity, with linking of those samples to maps via geo-coding enabling an interactive place-sound (and time) based interrogation of the aural archive.

Perhaps when they are grown up, my kids will be able to salve their adult nostalgic yearning for the lost soundscapes of their youth by logging into one of these archives and re-living the sound-moment courtesy of a passing enthusiast’s carefully executed and geo-logged sampling of the local sound-world outside their bedroom windows earlier today.


Barr, J. (1971) The Assaults on our Senses, Sphere: London.

PoS (Port of Sheffield) (2012) The Port of Sheffield Digital Trail at

Human League (1979) ‘Almost Medieval’, Reproduction, Virgin: London (Song). Available as a rather odd mash-up of various 21st century ‘knights and castles’ films, 1979 performance footage of the Human League performing the song and shots of office life and buildings:

Sennett, R. (2003) The Fall of Public Man, Penguin: London.

Toop, D. (2007) ‘To move with sound’ in: Carlyle, A. Autumn Leaves: sound and the environment in artistic practise, Paris: Double Entendre (reference via Taing, Z. (n.d.) ‘Sonorous City – London Soundscape Project’ at:…/ZaiTang_KandKleeElecAcouEssay.pdf)

Picture credit:

Interior View of the Old Duff-Norton Plant (Allegheny Drop Forge), 1925 Otto Kuhler (1894-1976) via

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

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…