From the bottom drawer: on rescuing three old thoughts about law’s quiet presence in place

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“…spread the parts out on the table and try to work out the relations between them.”

Nick Papadimitriou (2012) Scarp, Sceptre: London p. 254.

A rejection arrives. A colleague grabs for some consolation: “You’re not alone, I have a bottom drawer full of papers that never got anywhere”.

This is a strange sport – offering up sacrificial items to the shape-shifter known as Peer Review. It makes sense to have quality control, but it can produce strange effects. A line of analysis developed across a number of linked intended papers becomes thwarted when a component part is struck dead by The Arbiter. A major rewrite then ensues for the project, to swerve around the carcass now thrown down from Olympus.

Arguments can be refined this way – their salience improved in the astringent logics of truncation. But what is to become of these thrown off, defeated pieces? You place them in the lower drawer, and quickly (for the sake of your ego) turn you mind to other things. But those fragments still haunt. They remain a key, formative part of your other still-living components and their rejection gnaws at you. Over time those voices variously murmur away: speaking of the dead time still locked in them and of the things you really would still like to be saying publically. But you know that starting something new is a safer bet.

So what to do?

Well, for me I’ve managed the murmur over the years through this blog – for every potential project that springs to mind whilst out walking the dog only 1 in 10 is every going to have the luxury of a formal investigation and write-up. As time ticks by (“you’re not getting any younger Luke” comes another murmur) the best I can do is fire off an approximate sketch of WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN. Perhaps in a parallel universe somewhere, a different me catches the idea and does something proper with it. I wish him well.

But sometimes the murmurs niggle away because one or more of the pieces discarded to the prison of the bottom drawer need to live – because its siblings, still in play in various stages of review or public circulation depend implicitly on ground mapped out in the hidden fragment. Here comes the need for reanimation: to stew up the bones of the discarded papers, to extract the vital juices and DO SOMETHING with these fragments.

And so – it seems – I’m currently in a soup-making phase. I presently have on the hob (sorry – this metaphor is getting rather loaded) three reanimated papers which I’m bringing back into the light of day for a combination of reasons. First, because we all have to be seen to be productive and leaving things unpublished is just not playing the game. Secondly, because what I want to write next (about law, ruins and haunting) needs these precursors publically in place, otherwise only I will know why I’m saying what I’m trying to say and thirdly, because the opportunity has arisen to get these reanimated papers published.

So, what I have coming soon is (with the caveat that these re-workings of old rejects might yet be potentially re-rejected, but hopefully not):

The remix: I’m working on a comprehensive reworking of my ‘tentative steps towards a legal psychogeography’ chapter from Tina Richardson’s Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography 2015 edited collection). The aim here is to reposition the argument so that it is addressing legal geographers rather than psychogeographers, and urging them to be more attentive to the approximation and messiness of law’s presence and prominence in mundane situations. In the recasting of the paper I try to show using passages from Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp how attentiveness to law and other formal framings of any spatial situation are present but often at a comparatively low level of appearance than other less formal normative influences. What I will be seeking to show is how a half-thought of law may quietly – but only quietly and approximately – contribute to the making of and action within a place. If my minor corrections are accepted this will appear as an article in French geography journal in 2019.

The reanimation: the second item, also awaiting confirmation that minor corrections have been cleared, is a write up of a study that I did back in 2009. A couple of years later I tried to get it published in a built environment law journal. The proposed article outlined my early thoughts on the mechanism of law’s haunting: how places and people (and their entanglement) replicate in dead-hand fashion established normativities for a site, and perpetuate them long after their original purpose has disappeared. The key issue in the study was how (and why) precautionary signage was maintained by successive owners of a field attached to a countryside pub. The journal’s reviewers hated it. One said that “it was the kind of postmodern clap-trap that passes for research these days”. You have to choose your outlet and audience carefully in this game. The editor suggested some major rewrites to make it more conventional, but I felt this would make the paper miss its own point. So I pulled it and placed it gently in my bottom drawer. But over the years I’ve kept on needing to cite it in my subsequent work, and haven’t been able to. After a few years I tried to get it into an edited collection but that project fell through. Then I saw a call from an online journal. This was never going to be a way of keeping my institution’s REF police at bay in terms of high quality outputs – but getting it published would mean that I could at least reference it in future, more ‘top drawer’ REF-focussed outputs. So, I retooled the paper for the special issue and have my fingers’ crossed that my 2009 research will finally see the light of day soon.

The redux: the third item, never even made it into peer review, it was spat out by a journal’s editors after I had the temerity to submit a semi-fictional account of the making and abandonment of a place to a history journal. Major suggestions were offered for how I might re-present the material in a more conventional and evidence-based manner. But I sensed that meeting their requirements would have destroyed what I was trying to depict – that the life cycle of a ROC Post could only be presented in aggregate, by stitching together fragments of prosaic place-life that I’d found in Air Ministry archives for 100 sites. No single real site allowed the entire story to be presented: the story of what happens at such places of exceptional purpose but of very mundane assembly. Essentially what I wanted to preserve was a view of a very mundane legal element (based upon standard agricultural property dealings) at work at the heart of the UK’s provisioning for the Third World War, and also of how those law processes jostled for place-structuring influence alongside a host of other material and parochial concerns. Again, this is an attempt to write of law’s quietness, of its co-dependence with some much else in its vicinity in any instanciation of place. So, now I’m reworking the ‘story’ (and its contextualisation) for a forthcoming international legal geography anthology.

The above is not to suggest that nothing should ever be consigned to my bottom drawer to die: there is still plenty there which deserves to stay there. But to move wider projects forward I’ve need to heed the niggling voices because sometimes future developments need the early building blocks to be deployed. No one sets out to write papers that they intend not to be of good REF standard – but on second pass, those that have been passed over for the premiership may still have an important role to play in paving the way for more ambitious stuff ahead.

Image source: https://www.masterfile.com/search/en/messy+file+cabinet

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After darkness (a Halloween special): How undead places find their after-lives within architecture’s shadow identity.

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“The temporality of architectural obsolescence is quite varied. It can happen incrementally, detail by detail: a room whose assigned use is forgotten, a window whose insulating capacities no longer meet new standards, or an ornamental schema whose time has passed. But it can also happen suddenly and emphatically, as when a purpose-built building is left abandoned when intended occupants never materialize, or move on soon after they arrive. The market, technology, taste and fashion all play their part in the making of obsolescence. They do so through architecture’s shadow identity as real estate.”

Stephen Cairns & Jane M. Jacobs (2014) Buildings Must Die: A perverse view of architecture. The MIT Press: Cambridge MA & London.

During daylight hours I teach – and help manage – undergraduate and postgraduate real estate degrees at Sheffield Hallam, a vocationally focused university. I came here straight from legal practice as an environmental lawyer, brought in to teach the legal side of property management practice. But something happened shortly after I arrived. Stranger shoots started to grow, and step by step I ended up writing much more about bunkers, modern ruins and weird materialities than I did about real estate law.

But – in my head at least – it’s never been a contradiction, or an abandonment of the ‘day job’. Fundamentally my research is all about understanding the life-cycle of place formations, and looking to the wilder extremes of place and life-or-death purpose in order to bring processes of place making, operating and abandonment all the more into sharp relief. Such investigation finds nuances and complexity where others might assume simplicity: and whether their distain is of the “building managers are only interested in profit” or “urban explorers are childish” variety. Extreme places are good to study to tease out these logics of being and doing, because they tend to be better documented and their existential tensions and motives tend to be more explicit.

Everywhere is somewhere, and most places have affinity to other places of their type. Indeed, extreme places often reveal an underlying commonality when given a lingering look and my research has often found that there’s a prosaic dimension that lies at the heart of even the most unique-seeming place formations.

Teasing out the logics that see the pragmatics of real estate management intersecting with the rich desire-worlds and/or anxiety-worlds of those who strive to enter them (with or without permission) also remains a fascination for me, for whilst very different in their logics, the vivid – and fantasy based – worlds of the anxious building manager and the desiring visitor only really exist because of (and in symbiosis with) the other.

My interest is in particular how tension between the real and the imagined plays out across the full life cycle of any place – from its inception to its obliteration, but in particular in its final stage: the way place dies. This is probably borne partly of some sublimated gothic taste laid down in my youth, but it also has a more abstract and necessary root, for as Cairns & Jacobs note elsewhere in Buildings Must Die, built environment practitioners and academics alike are obsessed with beginnings of buildings and pay scant attention to their endings. Understanding the material and cultural factors that play out across and between an array of actors (some human, some not; some corporeal, some existing only in the realm of the symbolic) is both an act of pure and applied inquiry.

The utility of property is axiomatic to both professional real estate practice and to its study in academia. Real estate is a system of practices aimed at maximising utility and understanding the creation and transfer of value imputed to material places and structures as a quantification of that utility. Thus you’d think that studying the problematic of how things fall out of a chain of gainful use would be a core area of research. But it hasn’t been. Instead most research scholarship in the real estate field is fixated on examining how development schemes (at a variety of scales of analysis) come into being. This field’s research is often econometric in method (and profit-seeking in ideology). In seeking to study the end of life portion of the property use cycle I take a different methodological stance, one informed by my own research training in interpretive socio-cultural analysis. Due to this being a rather alien style for built environment scholarship, I have had the good fortune to find outlets for my work in cultural geography. Thank you geographers for letting me shelter in your (very) broad church.

And it is cultural geographers and contemporary archaeologists whose work I have found most helpful. Tim Edensor’s (2011) work on the mutability of St Ann’s Church in Manchester as it passes through time, and Caitlin DeSilvey’s writings on palliative curation have given important insights into the processual (and inevitable and universal) character of building deaths. Rodney Harrison’s writings in critical heritage studies on the force of contemporary urges to unquestioningly preserve ever more of the remnants of the past – and the ensuing crisis of accumulation that it creates – has helped me realise the importance of heritage effects in causing some sites (for good or for ill) to become stuck in an undead state, trapped by the heritage valourisation’s infinity. To be saved is to be kept alive, in a weak, low-utility state in perpetuity. The work of heritage scholars looking at the slow-death fate of notorious, “Difficult Heritage” (MacDonald 2009) sites has also helped me to consider how the death-stage of a place can troubled and prolonged, and scholars of “Dark Tourism” (Lennon & Folely 2000) have showed me how the emotional attachment of some to the remnants of such (former) places of malign purpose affect the ability of the site to be reborn as something new. Meanwhile Mélanie Van der Hoorn’s (2009) work on the apparent indispensability of certain eyesore buildings has opened up an important insight into the symbolic necessity of waste, of disorder and distaste in order to balance both the built environment and the moral universe that is imprinted upon it as symbols of heritage and culture.

In questioning why certain abandoned or undesired places haven’t been erased and replaced in the ordinary course of urban churn I am not seeking to valorise change for its own sake – mine is not an anti-heritage standpoint per se. But, working within real estate’s concern with utility it is a concern to understand how and why underused sites (wasteland, modern ruins and so forth) come into being and survive despite the logics of repurposing that swiftly re-orientate most other sites.

I’m appreciative of the latitude given to me by my multi-disciplinary department that allows me to plough these strange furrows. I work in long arcs that don’t readily display their directionality. But I usually know where I’m trying to reach and why I’m taking the winding and obscure route to get there. After years of obstinately doing what felt right (but also rather out-on-a-limb) I’m delighted that a small team of likeminded colleagues is now coming together at SHU, each of us peering into the darkness of extreme and/or terminal places in order to tease out a better understanding of the latter stages of the life cycle of place-formations, and the logics by which their change to new uses, and/or new meanings comes about. In particular by colleagues Dr Carolyn Gibbeson, whose research looks at the afterlives of former mental asylums (link) and Simon Kincaid (link) who studies how fires present the limit-conditions for the continuation of historic buildings, and how systems of material things and people assemble in order to try to keep conflagration at bay. Where others of a terminal persuasion have gathered around their provocative sub-disciplinary banners of “dark tourism” and “difficult heritage”, we have started to gather threads for an “awkward real estate” battle flag (and maybe in time we’ll pluck up the rebellious courage and go the whole way: declaring for “dark real estate”).

With this thought in mind I’m delighted to announce that Carolyn and I have proposed related papers for the Thrill of the Dark: Heritages of Fear, Fascination and Fantasy Conference at the University of Birmingham, 25-27 April 2019 (Call For Papers details here) – with both of us taking that conference’s premise of investigating the fascination of some with dark places to its limit – its own terminal condition. For each of us is exploring through case studies of two different place-formations (mental asylums and bunkers) how such darkly encoded places, over time and awkwardly, transit to becoming less dark and prospects for new uses and new meanings. Here are our abstracts:

Something slowly emerging out of the dark: how former mental asylums journey towards new uses are affected by their dark heritage

Carolyn Gibbeson, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, SHU

Mental asylums are often depicted as dark, feared places. Since their mass closure in the 1990s, these imposing now abandoned and decaying sites have commonly been presented in the media as nightmarish places of torment and scandal. Yet slowly the negative perceptions (their “darkness”) appears to have receded. But, asylums have always been on a journey – with their meanings being reinterpreted over time: once considered as places of sanctuary and cure, asylums then passed on to being signifiers of confinement, disorder and care failings. But now, in abandonment they are increasingly valued for their heritage value and are being turned into luxury residential properties (Franklin, 2002). And yet some still chose to frame these places as dark: staging there macabre photo-shoots and other atmospheric engagements. The asylum seemingly can be both resolutely dark and becoming-lighter at the same time. This paper will explore the semantic and material changes in historic former asylums sites that have influenced the evolution and co-existence of these multiple frames of reference for these structures. In doing so, it will examine how we make these places meaningful by asking who the “we” in this question refers to. It will suggest that different people see former asylums as dark in different ways; that this is a subjective response and varies over time. In short, we must study why, and by whom such places are framed as dark – rather than simply taking that as a given quality. To explore this “multivalence” (Bennett 2013) I will examine three former asylum sites, their different pathways of after-use and redevelopments, showing how different stakeholders have viewed, valued and negotiated these spaces differently, how this framing has changed over time and how it has affected the individual after-use path of each of the three sites.

How and when does darkness fade? Exploring fear, fascination and ambivalence with Hitler’s Bunker

Luke Bennett, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, SHU

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

References

DeSilvey, Caitlin (2017) Curated decay: Heritage beyond saving. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis & London.

Edensor, Tim (2011) ‘Entangled agencies, material networks and repair in a building assemblage: the mutable stone of St Ann’s church, Manchester’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35(2): 238-252.

Harrison, Rodney (2012) Heritage: Critical approaches. Routledge: London.

Lennon, John & Foley, Malcom (2000) Dark heritage: The attraction of death and disaster. Cengage: London.

MacDonald, Sharon (2008) Difficult heritage: Negotiating the Nazi past in Nuremberg and beyond. Routledge: London.

Van der Hoorn, Mélanie (2009) Indispensible eyesores: An anthropology of undesired buildings. Berghahn Books: New York & Oxford.

Image source: Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, Buffalo, NY: https://backpackerverse.com/10-most-haunted-insane-asylums-in-america/

The android’s empty gesture: OOO, irony and the drug dealer’s watch

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“Irony is like a wink from an android. You think you know what it means, until you realise the signal you took for meaning emanates from a source for which meaning is meaningless.”

Ian Bogost (2016) Play Anything. Basic Books: New York.

We’ve met at conferences a few times. He’s always distinctively dressed. He appears to pay considerable attention to how he presents himself to the world. Like a roadie for Hot Chip, he favours a gauche retro ’80s stylee. He comes up to me and poses the question.

“So, what’s with the drug dealer’s watch then?”

I look down at my wrist, and he does too. We both stare at my Casio F-91W. He assumes that I mean something ironic by choosing to wear it. I find myself unable to account for my sartorial choice. Not because I can’t find a reason, but because I can think of half a dozen rationalisations, but I can’t remember whether any of them were ever the real reason why I started wearing this retro-watch:

  • I’m anti-flashy in intention, I’d never wear a watch that declares ostentation. So maybe I chose the cheapest watch I could find for that reason.
  • My last watch broke. And I couldn’t decide what watch to replace it with (I’d been wearing that one for 15 years). So, I decided to wear a neutral, statement-less watch in the meantime.
  • My first watch was a Casio F-91W. It was an object of delight and wonder when I got it as a teenager in the early ’80s. It’s hard to summon a sense of that wonder now – but digital watches were the smart phones of their day. Look at all of the functions. And the buttons. And its so multi-functional that it needs instructions etched onto its face. Maybe I’d hoped that wearing it again (and marvelling that it’s still being made) would connect me to that childhood wonder. Maybe it did in abstract – but I only use it to tell the time. It’s other functions are ignored. I’m served for those needs by even more complex 21st century consumer prostheses.

I mumble an explanation (I forget which one I selected) and offer a knowing laugh. It does the trick and the conversation ends. In my mind the knowing laugh is an acknowledgement of the irony that opting for the most lo-tech option nowadays can single you out as having illicit intent. As I laugh I recall the image of a colleague stopped at airport customs because he had two mobile phones, and one of them was of the near-disposable, plain-vanilla variety. An unsmart phone. He was released after explaining that the suspiciously nondescript bland-phone was a University pool-mobile, issued for use during his field trip. It was not a phone for receiving drug orders.

These intertwined stories – of consumer devices and the intentionality assumed for them – came to mind as I read Ian Bogost’s Play Anything. Bogost’s is an odd book. I’d loved his Alien Phenomenology, or what it’s like to be a thing (2012, University of Minnesota Press) and I was hoping for more of the same. What I got instead was a strange book that seems to be trying to be two books at once. At one level it’s a continuation of his mapping out of his own take on Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), through a focus on the pleasures realisable through an active exploration of the possibilities of objects. But this line of argument seems overlaid by the book’s attempt to appeal to a wider, more general readership via its appearance as a (sort of) ‘self-help’ manual – an appeal to engaged worldliness as more outward looking alternative to (or augmentation of) mindfulness. The book’s rather longwinded subtitle, shows this direction of travel: “The pleasures of limits, the uses of boredom, and the secrets of games“. In pursuit of this Bogost ruminates on the positivity of ‘play’ and ‘fun’. He productively argues that play is not (necessarily) an opposite to work, but rather is a state of interaction with objects that seeks to explore their full qualities, rather than just a “things-for-us” instrumentality. But where it then gets a bit messy is in trying to then destabilise traditional understandings of “fun”.

But, hats’ off to Bogost for getting an OOO book positioned and presented as a mainstream paperback offering. And beneath some of the chatty, discursive filler (that the genre requires) there are a number of interesting, and provocative ideas playing out.

Most importantly, for the purposes of making sense of my ‘drug dealers’ watch’ moment, Bogost offers up a very interesting cultural diagnosis: something that he calls ‘ironia’. He argues that contemporary culture embodies a retreat from commitment to ideas, social positions and material things. Ironia causes us to cloak what we mean, align to or physically do by spraying out a trail of counter-statement and counter-actions. In ironia, our aim is to confound, to slip out of certainty, to defer finality or decision. In my case, to wear an anti-watch permanently because I can’t bear the weight of choice that the multitude of possible watches (and social-symbolic messaging) poses.

“Irony is the escape from having to choose between earnestness and contempt”. Through irony you can appear to align to both, simultaneously. Bogost argues that retreat to irony feels clever, it seems to let us have our cake and eat it,  it leaves us thinking that we are able to live in a permanent deferral of choice and/or action. You can be all things to all people. But this oscillation and indeterminacy produces headaches, and Bogost goes on to show that the ironic stance ultimately produces nothing, except alienation.

Bogost points out that whilst paranoia tends to be a condition of scarcity – a manifestation of (real or mistaken) glimpses of power at work over appropriation of finite resources, ironia is a condition of overwhelming over-abundance – of choices, of matter and of awareness of the possibilities of things going wrong (i.e. risk). Ironia is a syndrome of those lucky enough to be weighed down by an over-abundance of material and symbolic choices, and of knowledge of “how things bite back” (to adopt Edward Tenner’s (1997) Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the revenge of unintended consequences. Vintage: London) and can hurt us or at least fail to satisfy our expectations of them.

Bogost also argues that our retreat into ironia flows fundamentally from a state of fear, in which (in terms of politics, culture, material-relations): “we’ve trained ourselves to see commitments as affectations, and only to pursue a commitment ironically so that we can cast it aside if fear overtakes us.”

In diagnosing ironia Bogost makes a interesting link to nostalgia – by arguing that a turn to embrace of a thing-in-the-past is a control strategy, for appropriating a former thing is helpfully selective and controlled. Thus my remembrance of my first watch is fond – but only based on a few of its qualities and my experiences with it. Nostalgia enables us to keep at bay the enormity of things (material objects, cultural formations, social relations) and their risks of disappointing us. Fundamentally it is a simplifying strategy, and achieves its effect through temporal distancing – just as a holiday to a far off place where things seem simpler is a function of (social and spatial) distance from the complexity of the present at hand. As he puts it pithily, in this pillaging-to-simplify-and-keep-at-bay we “are all grave robbers now, even while mistaking ourselves as preservationists”. And the rise of social media has accelerated the pillage, giving us all and excuse [and perhaps also a fundamental need] to “abscond with objects, people, and situations by arresting them into assets imprisoned between sincerity and contempt. Online, we become digital poachers, stealing things’ souls in order to elevate ourselves above them, until we destroy those very things via incorporation or disposal. [Today’s] Safari spoils are made of pixels rather than ivory.”

Bogost’s book (as characteristic of most OOO based argumentation) is full of delicious mobilisations of aberrant mundaenity (as provocative poetics and metaphor are OOO’s analytic method), with Bogost here meditating on the act of sofa-covering in order to make his point:

“Rather than accept either the protected or the exposed state of the plastic sofa cover, irony celebrates the buffer—the plastic—as an alternative. Where grandma deployed the plastic cover out of paranoia that some mishap might befall a piece of furniture meant to last a lifetime, irony deploys it for the sake of experiencing the cover as an alternative to the cheap, crappy sofa that doesn’t warrant protection in the first place. Irony sells plastic sofa covers from the back of a truck in the IKEA parking lot.”

Having persuasively diagnosed ironia and its problems, Bogost then attaches the argument that play (as a fulsome, exploratory and committed engagement) leads to a more fulfilling (and authentic) relation with both material objects and socio-cultural objects.

So, regarding my watch. Bogost summons me off the fence: for “irony keeps reality at a distance”. He exhorts me to “pay close, foolish, even absurd attention to things. Then allow their structure, form, and nature to set the limits for the experiences”. In other words I need to declare for my watch, to accept that it is my watch, and that I have already made my choice of it. I then need to fully get to know it – to explore its affordances (as they assist me), its resistances (as they oppose my desires for my watch-tool) and play with my watch in a way that also touches the other qualities that it has – the ones that are not revealed to me by use or purpose but rather which exist none-the-less. Examples here might include, feeling the warmth of its face after exposure to the sun, exploring its crevasses and their grime-ecologies, embracing its scratches, chips and weathering as they unfurl over time.

My watch travels with me through time and space. It goes most places with me and is usually to be found resting upon the surface of my skin. It is a quiet but helpful (and reliable) companion. There are things I’ll never know about my watch – how it works, where its components have come from, who made them, or what lies in store for my watch, and how it will disassemble someday. Even with playful effort my relationship with my watch will be shallow and largely instrumentalist. But armed with OOO I can be a little more attentive to it and committed to its proximity to both my body and my social presentation of self to the world. I’ll give it a try and try and pass our time together in a more satisfying, connected way.

 

 

 

Withdrawn bodies: into the lawscape with Andreas, Keith and Candice Marie

“Bodies embody the law, carry the law with them in their moves and pauses, take the law with them when they withdraw”

Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (2015) Spatial Justice: Body, Law, Atmosphere. Routledge: London.

“Shall we watch a film?”

I realise it’s not really a question. I put down my book and search for something that we might both be in the mood for.

We find Mike Leigh’s semi-improvised black comedy Nuts in May (1976). Originally broadcast as a TV play, the low resolution, 4:3 projection fails to fill our 16:9 flatscreen. The image sits withdrawn into the centre of the screen, with black bars either side of this broadcast that curiously seems deeply, from within the TV, like a time capsule signal beaming in from a different era.

And yet as we watch it is an era that increasingly rings true – awkwardly so at points. Keith and Candice Marie are earnest vegetarians, venturing out from the metropolis to rural Dorset for a camping and hiking break. The film is squirm-inducing account of the breakdown of their calm, assured and ordered orientation to the world. Here, communing with the great outdoors it all goes a bit awry. And as I watch I find myself reading the film simultaneously from two angles. First, there’s a bitter-sweet nostalgia. I remember this milieu, a childhood remembrance of mustard coloured fisherman’s jumpers, folk songs and amateur industrial archaeology. But the second angle is a frame set by not having given my head time to adjust from book to TV watching…

The book I put down was Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ Spatial Justice. It’s a challenging read, Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos takes no prisoners in his synthesis of Deleuze, Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) and Affect Theory. Technically it’s a legal geography book, but for vast tracts of the book’s dense, but productive prose the law side of things disappears from view, and this is intentional. Refreshingly Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos wants to show “what happens when the law is nothing more than just one part of an assemblage with other bodies”(59) in space.

This is not a work that plays to the hegemony of critical legal geography, law’s presence (or absence) is not being explicated in order to show and/or challenge power-at-work. Instead it attempts a post human reformulation of “justice” and “spatiality”, and ends up with a conceptual product (“Spatial Justice”) that bears little relation to its otherwise next door neighbour, “Social Justice”. Indeed I’m left feeling simultaneously elated and uncomfortable that it so fully abandons a role for programmatic critique. Instead Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos uses OOO (and Deleuze) to frame Spatial Justice as the processes by which things (physical objects, ideas, emotions) do (or do not) accommodate to other things to which they find themselves adjacent. And in this flat ontology, Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos shows (perhaps) what happens when more-than-human ecological concerns are asserted over a human-centric ethics.

And a key element of Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ theorisation here is that the world is made up of myriad things: humans, oysters, table cloths and money (to use a classic OOO list-painting ploy) and that none of these things are ever fully revealed to any other thing – there is always a surplus hidden in the shadows. In short, all things withdraw. And for his purpose (as a spatio-legal theorist) law itself is one of those things that just loves – needs – to recoil into the ontological shadows.

His book seeks to account for this withdrawal – and to show its effects. In particular, he argues that where a situation is working well, its space (and other measures of its form) will appear smooth. In other words, the situation will appear straightforward, “obviously” arranged the way it is “just because”. In this slickness the resulting milieu manifests as atmosphere. Thus a romantic restaurant meal is all cosy, and (positively) emotionally charged. None of the legal infrastructure that enables the restaurant to register for VAT, to contract with the supplier of those Oysters, or the licensing requirements shaping the harvesting and dressing of that seafood will rise to the surface. But if the situation – its atmosphere – breaks (perhaps through the awkward agency of microbial contamination and resulting bodily distress) then this legal architecture – what Andreas conceptualises as lawscape – will suddenly reveal sufficient of itself, reframing the situation.

And so, with this in mind (and as I search for down-to-Earth scenarios with which to process Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ arguments), I sit watching Keith and Candice Marie as they wander the battlements of Corfe Castle, Keith doggedly “mansplaining” – squeezing the stones, the stories and the view into a totalising, instructive narrative. He’s making it all worthy, assimilating it into their holiday-making. Keith then takes them off to a quarry, and insists on interrogating the sole quarryman about his noble craft. Keith thus strides across Dorset, assimilating the actuality of the space he passes through into his already well-ordered worldview.

By all of this we see Keith (and the subordinated Candice Marie) in control.

We see this also in his hyper-ordered setting up of his pitch at the campsite.

But this is all prelude, for it is in the proximity to others that the ‘object’ Keith/Candice Marie  starts to come unstuck. First they must accommodate to the presence of Ray, a reticent (but harmless) student camped nearby. Keith finds that he cannot control the proximity of Ray, and emotionally and physically withdraws. Meanwhile Candice Marie seeks to engage Ray and to find common ground with him.

Then the arrival of Honky and Finger, on a noisy motorbike finally tips Keith over the edge. Honky and Finger are (by Keith’s judgement) the embodiment of uncouth. They are noisy and disorderly. Keith (at Candice Marie’s insistence) approaches Honky and Finger to ask them to be less noisy. First his approach seeks to active a dormant (withdrawn) civility – that surely Honky and Finger would know how to behave. But when he realises that seemingly there is no civility to re-activate, Keith takes a second line of interaction: he starts lecturing them about the “Countryside Code” and (in the face of Honky and Finger’s blank faces) then summons the image of the campsite’s rules against bonfires, painting a picture of rules signed up to by each guest at arrival, and how those strictures map on the space and specificities of this increasingly awkward encounter. When this strategy fails (when the lawscape has been summoned out from the shadows and even this has failed to bring forth a means of coexistence between these two objects: Keith/Candice Marie and Honky/Finger) Keith snaps and chases Finger around the campsite trying to reign blows upon him with a large stick.

Vanquished, the next morning Keith and Candice Marie conclude that they themselves must withdraw – they decide to leave the camp site and seek out somewhere where they can camp alone, arranging their affairs in a state of solitude. Here they can have things the way that they want theme to be. But they are visibly shrunken. They have gone into the world. They have actively and confidently sought to find its correspondence to the ideas and ideals that motivate their living, but the world (social and physical) has pushed back. They went seeking an immersion in an atmosphere (that of a calm and enriching rural idyll) but instead experience a rupture of that continuum. Friction through encounter with other semi-withdrawn objects, created a moment of crises in which the lawscape was glimpsed (and found wanting in terms of its conflict solving potential). And so, the solution – the route to Spatial Justice – was a withdrawal.

Image credit: http://lightsinthedusk.blogspot.com/2009/12/nuts-in-may.html

Infrastructure, investigated: thoughts from the SHU SPG conference

Isle of Axholme (Brian Lewis)

“Infrastructures are the collectively constructed systems that also build and sustain human life. “We” build infrastructure, and it builds “us.” Infrastructure exceeds its most obvious forms — the pipes, roadways and rail that often monopolize our imaginaries. Social infrastructures are also built, material, and lasting. Even intimacy is increasingly understood as infrastructural.”

Deborah Cohen (2017) ‘Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance’, blog here

So, the idea was to gather together a group of people to talk about how and why they focus upon infrastructure in their research activities. In short: to form a temporary infrastructure of knowledge exchange, of intimacy even. And this is what we achieved at the recent SHU Space & Place Group conference. I’d hoped that we’d presence the often backgrounded infrastructures that enable social life but I think we also got a bonus too, a glimpse of the human within infrastructure: both in terms of a fundamental dependency, but also as an authorship, and fellow-travelling. Infrastructure is of-us and we of-it. As Paul Graham Raven reminded us at March’s taster event, for Donna Haraway we are already cyborgs, beings melded with technology, whether we like it or not.

Richard Brook (Manchester Metropolitan University) picked up this theme in his opening presentation. As an architect he’s interested in how infrastructure is a mega-object emplaced into the environment with varying degrees of explicit attention to design and context, versus the compulsion towards function-determining-form. Helpfully he showed how attitudes towards the formation of infrastructural objects and their networks have fluctuated over time: in some eras infrastructure has been the subject of presencing, or ‘fitting-in’ through design (i.e that the host society has foregrounded it, perhaps as a sign of modernity and progress) whilst it has been the subject of less concern and consideration in other eras. But in most eras design focus and appreciation of environmental ‘fit’ has still tended to follow a “view from the road” rather than a “view of the road” approach for most infrastructure which we travel or inhabit. We are supposed to look out from not look at infrastructure.

Next up architects Cristina Cerulli and Sam Vardy (SHU) reported on their project with MArch students exploring the theme of ‘infrastructures of autonomy’, considering both the ubiquity of infrastructure in the modern world, but also of how it might be critiqued, adapted and made-different. They took us through the journeys that their students have been on, first forming their own sense of what infrastructure is and then developing their views of how it might otherwise be: and whether through a design (or political) processes of addition, subtraction or mutation. Their project’s blog can be viewed here: link

Then we shifted out attention to infrastructures of power generation and supply. Will Eadson (SHU) outlined his research into the politics of district heating networks, reminding us that each element of infrastructure is owned by someone, and that the interaction necessary to create and maintain a system requires a shared purpose and a mechanism of collaboration. Will pointed out how through combinations of politico-technical friction within these systems, the best of intentions can be thwarted, or rendered more difficult than their engineering or architectural designs might suggest.

Martin Dodge (University of Manchester) turned our attention to a historical perspective, by outlining his work researching the  now-vanished 20th century network of power generation and supply in the Bradford area of north-east Manchester. He showed us how through archival searching he has pieced together a sense of the scale and purpose of the colliery, power station, gas works and abattoir that once operated as an integrated cell-like, metabolic infrastructure feeding itself and nourishing outward. But also spewing out legacies of pollution and ill health. Martin’s presentation sparked debate about whether heavy industry should be the focus of narratives of ‘loss’ and whether such foregrounding is (in any sense) nostalgic, and whether it is right or wrong to build the stories of place other than through the interview testimony of those who once worked there. Martin was open and generous in giving his responses, and in doing so indicated (for me at least) that if the aim is to presence infrastructure then the presencing of the researcher (and of their motives and feelings about what they have chosen to research, and why) is a very important – but often hidden – part of the story. A copy of Martin’s slides can be viewed here.

After lunch we reconvened to hear from Fides Matzdorf (SHU) taking us through her ethnographic account of improvised infrastructures within the spaces and places of competitive ballroom dancing. Fides showed us how generic municipal spaces (e.g. town halls) are locally and individually adapted by the competitors who appropriate the ledges of memorial plaques, radiators, window fixings as improvised changing stations. Her presentation reminded us that infrastructure is fundamentally about environmental adaptations to some pressing purpose, and that spaces can be multi-use, adapted in the moment with a venue’s infrastructural (event enabling) affordances brought out by the user, rather than designed-in, intentionally by the original place maker. Thus not all infrastructural function and use is (or can ever be) anticipated by the designer.

Then sound artist Matt Parker (University of the Arts, London) turned our attention to the presence of the infrastructures of the internet, giving them a sense of mass and energy consumption through his atmospheric short film which uses field recordings of the sounds emitted within server farms to emphasise that ‘the cloud’ is not light – hardware is just that, hard, heavy and sucking in energy at an exponential rate. The effortless screen-world of the now is enabled through a physical infrastructure that is located elsewhere, out of sight but with a heavy footprint that is visible and audible, if we know where to look (and choose to do so). Matt’s film is here:

And there’s more at: http://www.thepeoplescloud.org/

Brian Lewis (poet and publisher, Longbarrow Press) then counterbalanced the claustrophobia of Matt’s presentation by taking us outside – first through White Thorns his poetry recital, to the Isle of Axholme, the empty seeming flatlands of North Lincolnshire, where he performs long, lone night walks.

On high, a freehold
of six thousand square metres
threshed by a rotor.
All the feathering threefold
swept into pitch cylinders.

Brian’s verse (extract above and more here) drew into relief the infrastructural features of that landscape – the wind turbines, the drainage ditches and the agricultural apparatus and showed himself drawn into co-occupation of space with them thereby revealing a highly populated landscape devoid of humans. Then Brian took us outside – literally – leading us out into the daylight of Sheffield for a meander past the culverted outcrops of the River Sheaf, the barren straights runs of the tram lines as they parallel the railway station and inner ring road, across a long, confined metal bridge tunnel, that few in Sheffield choose to notice and thereafter winding up through narrow lanes to SHU’s Cantor Building for a haiku writing session inspired by the walk (with some of the compositions scrolling below).

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Then the event ended with John Grant’s (SHU) tour of the roof of the Cantor Building, showing us its heat and power infrastructure and outlining how resilient this building would be as a hiding place in the event of a zombie apocalypse. John uses this colourful metaphor as a way of engaging students in the prosaics of assessing the energy rating of buildings – it being more attention grabbing to presence infrastructure through setting the challenge of finding ways of avoiding encounter with the flesh-failing bodies of the undead than in foregrounding infrastructure through attentiveness to the power rating plates of blank solar cells and heat exchangers.

Thus, in all of the talks the power of narrating infrastructure – of knowing and presencing it for a particular purpose – came to the fore.

Image credit: Isle of Axholme (Brian Lewis)

NB: My spell checking tells me that presencing is not a real word. But it should be, and one day I will try to fully explain why. In brief, it was a term used by anti-nuclear activists in the 1980s to counter the ability of the nuclear state and its infrastructure to hide in plain sight, and involved mobilisation of a variety of representational strategies (photography, performance, writing, archival research) to make sure that that infrastructure’s  footprint was noticed (see for example the work of the Atomic Photographers Guild: https://atomicphotographers.com/). An extreme instance of presencing is the spraying of human blood on nuclear facilities by the Ploughshare activists, as chronicled in  Eric Schlosser’s (2015) Gods of Metal, see also: https://www.ploughshares.org/about-us.

Filling the void – two trips into the ruins of London’s underground

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“As three-dimensional public objects [urban ruins] still serve useful purposes and act as concrete, tangible catalysts for storytelling.”

Mélanie van der Hoorn (2012) Indispensable Eyesores: An anthropology of undesired buildings. Berghahn Books: Oxford (p.8)

Nature abhors a vacuum, and nowhere more so than in the crowded, densely developed space of central London. So where might we look to find underoccupied ruins in such a highly utilised terrain? The answer it seems is below our feet. I report here on recent trips into two of the city’s uncharacteristically empty spaces. By comparing these two seemingly very different sites I seek to draw out how they are both ultimately preoccupied with the question of how to fill these uncommon voids.

The cult of information meets the cult of the misty bull

In the heart of the City, in the bowels of the new corporate HQ for information giant Bloomberg, lie the remains of a small Roman temple. Built around AD 240, this temple was the site at which the all-male worshippers of the Mithras cult met to enact their rituals in celebration of their bull slaying god.

Abandoned in the 5th century with the retreat of Rome, the temple fell into ruin and sank beneath the surface of the city (in the standard way that archaeology does). Then along came post war clearance of the site (now a bomb-site from the Blitz), the ruins of the temple were uncovered, and thousands of people flocked to the excavation, trample its mud and to gaze (and stand) upon its stones and their silent-but-tactile revelation of a time very-long-ago. In the subsequent redevelopment of the site, the ruin was transplanted in 1962 to the top of a nearby car park where – over the years – it received a few visitors. But now, as a condition of the £1 Billion re-redevelopment of the site the ruin has been re-placed, back upon its original site and now sits as a tourist attraction in the bowels of the Bloomberg building.

Entry is free (via a booking system at https://www.londonmithraeum.com/), through a small, bright gallery space called Bloomberg Space, currently displaying the vibrant, citrus hewed art of Isabel Nolan. Here very friendly guides welcome the visitor, as they step into this exception space to the fare of plush eateries and swish offices dominating the surrounding streetscape.

“Is this the right place for the Roman ruins?” I ask. “Indeed it is”, comes the bright reply and an eager arm thrusts a rather expensive looking tablet in my direction. This, I’m told, will help me to interpret the array of excavated artefacts comprising a tall vertical display on one wall of the gallery. “We have over 14,000 artefacts in total, these are just a sample here – you can experience the rest using the tablet” says the attendant, urging me with every gesture to engage with its pleading screen. Here the whole set up yearns to emphasise both the abundance and its orderly mastery by Bloomberg’s blending of physical and virtual modes of encounter.

There is something very proficient and mission-affirming about this curation – it didn’t strike me as cynical and the guides genuinely seem very proud of their ruin attraction – but the manner of staging this encounter with the past screams out that Bloomberg are in the information business and that they can collate and relay anything, not just business performance data.

A black staircase then guides us below ground and into a chamber where Joanna Lumley and academic friends tell us (on rotation, every 15 minutes) what is known about the Cult of Mithras and its rituals. We sit in the gloom, instructed by images projected Plato-like onto the (cave) wall. A silhouette of a cloaked figure shimmers, by turns looking like a bull or a man. This references the Mithras ritual’s own simulation of the sacrifice of a bull (and whilst information is scarce about the rituals, we are confidently assured that space was simply too small to enable an actual bull killing here).

shadow

Suitably primed (and in turn acting out our own modern tourist ritual) we process into a dark room and are invited to spread out around the edge of this space in order to best “enjoy the experience”. Here we experience a soundtrack of Mithras worshippers assembling, a hubbub of voice chatting excitedly in Latin. We, the 21st century audience, stand at the periphery of the room and we can hear the 4th century denizens who have also assembled here for their ritual, but cannot see them. Then comes the sound of an ancient horn, which ushers in an attentive quiet (from both audiences) and then ritual chanting (from the 4th century participants). This interplay between the reaction of the two audiences is suitably atmospheric. Mist then starts to spray into the room and fine lines of lights shining down through the damp air mark out the walls of the temple, as the chanting continues.

mithraem

Then after a few moments of this strange empty-presence the house lights come on and we are invited to inspect the ruins. We are back in the 21st century and alone with our thoughts and interpretations. The end of the sound- and light-show leaves us within a room that has some runs of nondescript, and rather clean looking, stone – wall stumps – laid out upon the floor. Once the room is fully revealed there is actually very little to see here. The materiality of the stones themselves can’t match the vibrancy of the sound and light show. And the ruins occupy little of the volume of the space and this is why the walls written in mist and light are so effective. But their side effect is that, once they have gone, they emphasise that a ruin is always (at least in part) an absence of structure and matter. A ruin always has missing mass and lost surfaces, for it is void space in which a former building partly lingers.

The presentation of the London Mithraeum is both powerful and an anti-climax, because it is an attempt to reanimate a void; to temporarily fill it with action, structure and intimations of mass. The power comes from the active curation of the experience of this ruin-encounter, and inevitably (perhaps) this entails the active use of our own processes of myth-making and storytelling in order to animate this space. The sound and light show creates a sense of the Mithras ritual, but it also creates its own ritual performance of heritage-spectacle (and/or ruin-gazing).

There is no reason to suggest that this is the final staging of the London Mithraeum. Perhaps in the year 2500 there will be a London Bloomberg experience that creates a ritual in which our further evolved selves can have the titillating retro experience of an IT-enabled sound and light show activating the conjoined ghosts of a late-Capitalist corporate headquarters and/or a Roman heritage attraction and of the ruin-voids they have each left behind beneath the active surfaces of The Greater Anglia Conurbation.

The Minotaur’s lair and the infinite tunnels to nowhere

Artist Naomi Avsec talks me through the chain of events that led to her taking up a six month residency deep beneath Clapham, South London in an abandoned air raid complex of tunnels: “When I saw the advert, I just couldn’t resist. Studio space here in London is so cramped and expensive, and you end up with a bland, tiny room. Here was a chance to work in a strange, exciting and voluminous place quite different to the standard studio offering. In short, here was a wonderful opportunity-space”.

We met above ground in a local café and then took the rickety elevator down, over 100 feet into her lair. Here the tunnels went on and on, their emptiness punctuated only by the occasional variegation in the cement cast hemispherical panels: a hatch here, a sign there, and a light screed of dust everywhere.

At times Naomi strode off into the dark, announcing that when alone she likes to go for walks along her tunnels without any lights on, for they are almost straight and predictable enough for such drifting.

After wending our way along, up, across and down a few turns of tunnel (for our indulgence, safely guided by torchlight) we reached Naomi’s studio, an arbitrarily selected station point. Her territory was marked out by a desk, piles of material and laid-out work-in-progress. And yet the tunnel still seemed so empty. “That’s the real challenge here” Naomi told me, “how to make a mark upon this emptiness. I find things in my forays to the surface and drag it back down here. Up there these items feel big, and I struggle to drag them and cram them into the lift. But as soon as I get them here they shrink to insignificance. I’m approaching half-way through my residency now and I’m still trying to work out how I can make my area feel populated”.

big tunnel

Built as one of London’s deep shelters in the aftermath of the Blitz, these tunnels saw little use in the war. Back in those days the now-empty space of this labyrinth would have been full, floor to ceiling – with bunk beds, and in design intention at least would have been full of bodies, the anxious flesh of huddled families.

Naomi’s creative work here is bringing some bodies into the tunnels, but not in the sense portrayed by Henry Moore in his sketches of slumbering human figures in London’s air raid shelters during the war. Naomi works across a number of media and styles. Collage is to the fore in her creative practice at the moment, summoning strange/uncanny inhabitants into the tunnel.

creatures

Perhaps due to the absence of an anthropomorphic stimulus in the solitude of this place, Naomi’s work seems instead to be tending towards the more atavistic. She has also assembled a variety of surreal three dimensional sculptures made with those found materials that she has laboriously dragged back into her lair, like an ant with its payload waving precariously in the breeze, its bounty far larger than its body.

Maybe it’s inevitable that time spent alone in stygian gloom summons thoughts and impressions of shadow creatures that have been glimpsed in the underworld across the generations. There is a dreamy, playful tone to the uncanny beings that Naomi has summoned into being.

“I get carried away down here. There are no distractions and that’s such a luxury. This really is such a great opportunity. Some days, after a while, I eventually notice the cold creeping up from the concrete through my feet. When that strikes I go back to the surface and nip into the local supermarket, both to use the loo and to top up on sunlight and a sense of connection with the surface-world. I also take Vitamin D as a precaution against the lack of exposure to daylight. But it’s still a thrilling and really stimulating experience.”

Naomi’s opportunity to be here comes courtesy of a residency programme called GROUNDED offered by Battersea Art Centre and Growing Underground (http://growing-underground.com/), the owners of this subterranean complex who are steadily expanding their own operations into the presently unoccupied portions of the labyrinth. Growing Underground grow fresh micro-greens and salad leaves in a bright, white, pest-free, highly controlled environment using the latest hydroponic systems and LED lighting. At the moment their operation inhabits some, but not all of the tunnels. Naomi’s is one of three current artist residencies within the as-yet-to-be converted tunnels. Human access into the growing areas is strictly controlled and my visit was only to the currently spare tunnels. Growing Underground’s ongoing expansion of production will see more of the empty tunnels transformed into vibrant, ultra-clean growing spaces, though the insertion of sealed units into the tunnel – creating tunnels within the tunnels and a lingering voidspace between the doubled ceilings, sides and floors. Naomi therefore is free to leave her mark upon her tunnel-space’s cast concrete walls if she wishes, but if she does so then the chance is that few if any will ever see her creations. “That creates a strange challenge. It’s almost like being invited to create some invisible art; something that only the artist knows about.” Perhaps the early cave painters felt this way and/or that they saw the audience for their art as not of-this-earth. Again, we return to the atavisitic elements that seem recurrent in the work inspired by Naomi’s lone dwelling in these man-made caves, the drift towards her production of sigils, invoking or inviting a communication with inner and outer demons as she wrestles with the abundance of this empty, blank, worm-like subterranean space.

minotaur

Image credits: Blurry photographs by Luke Bennett, better ones by Naomi Avsec, www.naomiavsec.co.uk.

A field, a bunker, a field again: The fate of place and the prosaics of place-making and unmaking.

Markyate Montage

“On top of the hill… I met an insurance agent and a radio salesman, wearing badges and armlets. Their oldest clothes and huge smiles. Theirs is a job that would drive schoolboys mad with envy. Any healthy-minded lad would give all his pocket-money to take a turn in this observation post, with its sandbagged watching place, its dug-out and camouflaged hut. Here is sentry work of a new and exciting kind.”

                J.B. Priestley, News Chronicle 17 Oct 1939

This is an abridged version of a paper that I wrote for an academic journal special issue on ‘Cold War Places’. I wanted to foreground the rise and fall of a prosaic wartime place-type, the aerial observation post and chose to stitch together a semi-fictionalised account of one site’s passage through time. This seemed the best way to give life to the fragments of stories that I had found for a variety of such posts in the National Archives. My aim was to show the ebb and flow of a place-formation, and how it is an unstable local-national constellation of people, environment, paperwork and policy. But in the end the editors didn’t feel my unconventional approach suitable for their history journal. So, rather than leave it in a drawer I’m presenting it here…

2017

We are at the verge of a country lane in the Hertfordshire countryside just outside the village of Wasnott, 30 miles north of London. Beyond a gap in the hedge a field gently rises to its brow on the horizon. Other than the stubble of an arable crop this field is empty; there is nothing to see here.

1979

We are at the same location, looking into the same field. A man wearing a dark beret and blue serge uniform is crouched over a portable petrol-electric generator trying to get it started. Around him stand three other men. One wearing a blue trench coat, another standing by a raised concrete hatch, into which the third man is about to descend. Two of the men are smiling, caught in the act of playfully chiding the generator attendant for his ineffective motor-starting technique. The men have brought with them an assortment of other bags and cases. The men and the concrete structures are surrounded by a high chain-link fence topped with barbed-wire, forming a compound within which a sign stands, declaring:

“Royal Observer Post

7/P2

Wasnott”

The men are ROC volunteers getting ready for a weekend exercise that will see them stationed within their post’s underground bunker. Here they will open a succession of manila envelopes at allotted times and act upon the simulated detonation and fallout readings contained within, reporting that data through to their ROC Group HQ.

1933

Four men are standing in the field: the head of the Observer Corps, the Clerk of the Parish Council, Wasnott’s police constable and an engineer from the General Post Office (GPO). The Clerk is present because the field is managed by the Parish Council, the western part of it having recently been turned into a recreation ground. The constable is here because his Chief Constable has been instructed via a “confidential” standard form letter issued by the Home Office to arrange recruitment of local men as special constables to man an observation post to be established at this spot for the purpose of detecting, plotting and reporting aircraft movements as part of the air defence system. The procurement of both men and physical sites for the Observer Corps has become standardised through experience and repetition since the Corps was established as a volunteer force in 1924 in Kent and Sussex, and then slowly expanded across the counties of Southern England. This field has been identified as suited to a post because it affords a good clear view towards London. However, the GPO Engineer is in attendance because this location is only feasible if a telephone connection can be run to it. The men agree a suitable position and a stake is driven into the ground.

As the Home Office’s letter assures the Council, this stake is the post’s only enduring physical element, for:

“as the [observation] equipment is portable, nothing remains on the site when not in use, nor is there anything to be seen, except, in some cases, a peg driven in flush with the ground to mark the exact site, e.g. in a field… A telephone pole may be erected close to the site, if no convenient pole already exists … no damage of any sort occurs, and it may perhaps be mentioned that the men manning the post are always local men, known probably to you, and that in the quite large number of posts already established, no difficulties with Landlords or Tenants have been found to occur”.

Accordingly, the Home Office’s letter offers no rental payment for the post’s use of the site, which it states will be used for annual exercises not exceeding seven days (or nights) per year.

1942

The Chief Observer is hauling a bundle of advertising hoardings from his delivery van and taking them into the post hut. For the first five years of the Wasnott post’s existence the observers continued to bring all of their equipment to the site for each exercise. Experience of bitter winds on this hillside encouraged them to also bring thick clothing and canvas windbreaks. However the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in September 1938 changed things. For two weeks at the height of the crisis the observers manned the post permanently and it became clear that for continuous operation these posts would need to provide sheltered facilities to enable observers to cook, rest and simply get warm. Deciding upon the suitability of having each post served by a wooden shed, the Air Ministry issued designs for “Standard Pattern Huts” and provided £5 for materials by which shelter and welfare facilities could be locally sourced and erected. But in the face of rationing of building materials the roll-out of this solution was slow to bear fruit. In the meantime at Wasnott the Chief Observer scrounged around and improvised with sandbags “quite a good little fort around the spotting position”. But that proved unsatisfactory as a long-term shelter as after a hard winter the “bags gradually rotted and the sand swirled about in the breeze and got into eyes, cups of tea and everything”. As interim measures a tent and then a caravan were placed at the site and then at the height of the Battle of Britain, amidst fears of imminent invasion, two members of the Home Guard camped out near the post in an old car they had dragged onto the site.

At Wasnott the Chief Observer kept pressing for tools to do the job – and a wooden hut was eventually created, replete with a “cubby hole” featuring stove, small desk and shelves adjacent to open platform with removable glass windshields. But winter chill penetrated even that shelter, prompting the Chief Observer to now bring cardboard display adverts from a local tailor’s shop, to line his hut’s walls.

1946

The scavenger wrenches the corrugated steel shutter from Wasnott post’s now-abandoned observation platform and drags it to his van parked at the edge of the site.

By the end of the war the ROC had 40,000 observers, 40 reporting centres, and approx. 1,500 posts spread across the length and breadth of mainland Britain. But within a couple of weeks of the end of the European campaign in May 1945, the ROC was stood down and its posts quickly abandoned. Already in a tired condition by the cessation of hostilities, posts’ physical structures quickly fell into dereliction – a process accelerated by the post-war steel shortage and its ensuing scrap hunting. Some posts also became improvised homes for squatters: citizens or demobilised military personnel, adding further to their “eyesore” reputation.

However, in the Autumn of 1946, in the face of deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union it was decided that the ROC should be reactivated, and in December of that year, the Air Ministry wrote to Wasnott Parish Council proposing a year to year tenancy to formalise its resumption of occupation of the site. In the face of some resistance by the Council to the standard lease presented to them (but which the Air Ministry asserted had been accepted without amendment by many landowners), the Air Ministry eventually agreed a 15/- rent and to providing a more particularised definition of the post’s 3 yards by 3 yards plot.

But the revival of individual posts didn’t automatically revive the observation network for the wartime ROC reporting centres had closed, the radar system was barely operable and few fighter squadrons remained. Plans were put in hand to address this, but this investment would not see fruit until 1953 (by which time the evolution of military technology had rendered both the new reporting centres and the new ROTOR’ radar bunkers obsolete). Derek Wood, recalling his own experience of starting out as an ROC member in 1947, portrays the parlous conditions faced by the post-war observer, stood on site contemplating the emergent Cold War tensions in:

“their ill-fitting uniforms [which] were soaked through, post structure and hut were non-existent and the rickety wooden tripod legs of the instrument often fell to pieces, depositing the heavy metal table on the luckless observer’s feet. Telephones had a habit of emitting loud screams and crackling noises, or they cut out altogether. Where lines had not been laid on the observers solemnly wrote the [aircraft] plots down and put them in the mail the next day.”

1954

The pre-formed concrete panels are unloaded from the lorry and carried across to the site. The Council had anticipated this moment back in 1951 when they agreed to increase the site plot to 7 yards by 7 yards, and to increase the annual rent to 40/-. The Air Ministry’s plans to improve the physical condition of its observer posts had seen Orlit Ltd commissioned in 1952 to supply 400 sites with prefabricated concrete lookout posts in two variants: on-ground (Type A) or raised on stilts (Type B). But Wasnott’s new observation platform is of doubtful merit, for jets have now started to supersede human plotting capability. In recent Air Ministry trials it was acknowledged that the days of the ROC’s aircraft spotting role are numbered. Wasnott’s Orlit platform will indeed soon lie derelict, aircraft observation supplanted by the ROC’s new role inspired by the Hydrogen Bomb and the new type of accommodation required for it.

1956

The Chief Observer is sitting in his car, writing a letter to the Council thanking the councillors for their permission to bring cars onto the recreation ground for the duration of the one week summer exercise. The Chief Observer’s letter assures the Council that the rest of year’s training will be held in the function room of a local pub, The Lucky Duck.

Following the previous year’s exercise a spat had ensued between the Air Ministry and the Council. The Council had notified the Air Ministry of new bylaws prohibiting vehicles from the recreation ground and in turn the Chief Observer had alerted the Air Ministry to the prospect that this restriction could “considerably dampened the enthusiasm of our Post Instructor and Observers” adding that “it is no wonder that the ROC is struggling to attract volunteers”. After further correspondence a temporary concession was granted to permit the ROC volunteers to park their cars upon the site during their summer exercise.

The subject matter of the post’s training activity will soon change (although, out of these volunteers’ choice, aircraft spotting will remain a staple of the crew’s gatherings in The Lucky Duck for many years to come). In June of 1955 the Home Secretary had announced to the House of Commons that steps were being taken for the ROC – given its network of observation sites spread across the length and breadth of mainland Britain – to give warning of and to measure radioactivity in the event of air attacks in a future war. Henceforth, instead of plotting aircraft the ROC would be plotting nuclear explosions and fallout. At Wasnott there were some resignations when the post’s new duties had been announced. These volunteers had joined the ROC because they wanted to be aircraft spotters and they enjoyed being outdoors, sky watching. They did not want to hide underground like moles.

Results from US and UK testing in the mid 1950s had emphasised the importance of shelter in the face of not only blast, but also the ensuing fallout. Accordingly, in support of the ROC’s new role the Government had authorised funding for the ROC Posts to receive subterranean “protected accommodation”. The first designs for this had been settled in July 1955, and the resulting underground bunkers would be built by local contractors using “cut and cover” techniques to form in poured reinforced concrete a 19ft x 8ft 6in x 7ft 6in buried concrete box, its roof slab overlain by three feet of earth. Accessed via a hatch, a ladder leading down 15ft into the bunker gave access to its main room with desk, two sets of bunk beds and small anteroom with an Eltex chemical toilet. Ventilation was provided by two wooden or steel louvred ventilation shafts. Each post cost around the price of a modest terrace house, but inside the conditions were far from homely: the bulk of that expense being absorbed in the cost of excavating and building below ground. The ROC’s bunkers featured no heating and only dim lighting from a single 12V battery pack. Home Office habitation trials in 1956 found the subterranean posts fit for purpose, but their design and dwelling circumstances continued the ROC’s experience of abjection, with Wood recalling that “despite the monitoring room temperature of 60oF the insidious cold of the concrete floor crept through flesh and bone.”

1960

The local contractors are clearing the site, packing away the wooden shuttering planks used to form the Wasnott bunker’s poured concrete walls. The shuttering will be used again at the next site. As they drive out of the field they are keen to do so quickly, before the tenant farmer reappears. There has been recent correspondence between all parties about the mud churned up by the contractor’s to-ing and fro-ing, one more instalment in a long line of correspondence associated with this post’s latest phase of rudimentary development.

Completed in early 1960, the building of Wasnott post’s protected accommodation was the culmination of a protracted legal process that rather belies the urgencies of the first Cold War. Back in 1954 the Air Ministry had asked the Council to sell it the existing plot, but the Council had declined. After that, the Air Ministry has reconciled itself to meeting its needs by taking a 21 year lease of the site. Thereafter from early 1955 until March 1959 a succession of correspondence teased out mundane conveyancing matters concerning the nature of the Council’s ownership interest in the site variously under the Wasnott Inclosure Act 1842, the need for Ministry of Education authorisation due to the recreation ground’s educational endowment, negotiation of rent and fencing arrangements and steps to clarify the first names of all required signatories to the lease. Eventually, the lease was completed, regularising the Ministry’s occupation of the site (now increased to 136 square yards) for 21 years at an annual rental of £5 and, at the Air Ministry’s insistence, imposing a 50 foot radius safeguarded area ringing the protected accommodation within which the landlord agreed not to build any obstructions.

1962

The Chief Observer, visiting the site to tidy up after a recent fallout plotting exercise, finds that the entrance has been blocked by the tenant farmer who grazes cattle on the pasture adjacent to the recreation ground. With some difficulty, she manoeuvres herself around the obstacle and approaches the hatch, descending thereafter into the bunker. There she attempts with some difficulty to fit a piece of equipment, in the course of which she falls onto the post’s table causing a “splintering crash that reverberated round the walls, just as we are told the nuclear blast will do”. Gathering herself together she climbs back to the surface and once out of the hatch notices a bull amongst the herd of docile jersey cows. The bull starts towards her and she runs at full pelt towards the blocked exit. To her relief she manages to squeeze her way back to the safety of the lane and emphatically concludes: “to me a bull with a ring in his nose, is far more of a potential hazard than a nuclear bomb. This is a case of the evil that we know being ‘worse’ than that which we do not”.

With such naivety or bravado, Wasnott’s crew were slowly coming to terms with their new role, a process aided by their involvement in blast and fallout monitoring exercises, like the recent Fallex 62 national fallout plotting exercise. Such exercises could be monotonous however.  Fallex 62 had featured only a single simulated strike, meaning that only the eastern part of the country was substantively affected. Accordingly, Wasnott crew’s participation had been “limited to ‘monotonous’ fall out readings or ‘no reading’ for hours on end”, accompanied by the constant “blip – blip” chirping of the post’s Carrier Warning Receiver, a soundtrack relieved only by occasional chatter with the crews of the other posts in Wasnott’s cluster.

1980

The new recruit is being introduced to the post. In the face of rising tensions between the superpowers over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan recruitment to the ROC has doubled over the last year. The Chief Observer tells the recruit that his prospects for a long and enjoyable role in the ROC are buoyed by the Thatcher Government’s stated commitment to reviving civil defence. The Chief Observer does not mention his nagging concern that eventually the need for monitoring posts staffed by humans will be overtaken by remote sensing devices given everything that seems to be happening with the boom of electronic devices in the household. For the time being he will take comfort in the works in hand to convert the Wasnott post’s landline links to dedicated private wires and to replace its old terminal with a new loud-speaking Teletalk telephone.

But despite the recent rise in recruits the ROC retains its perennial anxiety about recruitment and at Wasnott this anxiety colours the Chief Observer’s stance around renewal of the Wasnott Post’s lease which is set to expire this year. The PSA (who have now taken over the management of civil assets from the Defence Land Agent) have advised that the ROC can rely upon standard continuation of tenancy rights set down in the Landlord & Tenant Act 1954 which mean that the 1959 lease will be deemed to simply continue on its old terms. The UKWMO’s HQ staff have become involved, and they share the Chief Observer’s discomfort with this passive approach. Ultimately UKWMO will insist that the PSA enter into negotiations with the landowner to secure the active grant of a new 21 year lease because “we know from experience that any uncertainty about the long-term future of a post will have an adverse effect upon the morale of its crew.”

1992

The Chief Observer places equipment removed from the post into the back of the hired van, it is now sixth months after the formal standing down of the ROC. The van is driven by full time ROC officers who have been instructed to liaise with ROC Post crews around the country so that they may arrange to collect equipment from their posts and take it to central stores. In July 1991 Kenneth Baker, the Home Secretary, had suddenly announced that following review of the defence requirements in the light of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Home Office could no longer justify the continued use of the ROC volunteers for the nuclear monitoring role, and that this responsibility would in future be met by a mixture of local authorities and the military. The news had been received with shock by the ROC. At Wasnott Post the observers had gathered at the site for the last time and written their names, and the date, upon the wall of their post. Their sector’s commanding officer had exhorted his volunteers to “maintain our image to the end” and that they should “stand down with dignity…there is nothing to be gained from emotive statements to the media, petitions, demonstrations etc”. However, at many posts it had proved difficult to get the now disbanded post members engaged with the clear-out task. The van’s drivers will themselves be redundant by the end of March 1992. This attempted clearance of posts and gathering together of their records will therefore prove to be only partially successful.

1999

Accompanied by the bemused farmer, the man with the expensive looking camera climbs down into the Wasnott post. The photographs that he takes there will form part of a survey which will present on-line an account of the location and physical state of every traceable ROC post. The farmer acquired this field from the Council after the recreation ground was sold for housing development in 1967. He had never paid much attention to it prior to the ROC stand-down. In 1992 he had accepted surrender of the lease and a payment of £50 in lieu of the reinstatement liability. Shortly afterwards he took the post’s fencing down, and cleared away the collapsed Orlit post after it blew over in a heavy storm. But otherwise he had left things alone.

A few years later he had been approached by a businessman who said that he would like to rent the bunker as a weekend retreat. The farmer had seen the man on site a few times, cutting the grass around the post or sitting on the hatch admiring the view of London. One time in conversation the man had declared: “this place was originally built so the Royal Observer Corps could monitor London being wiped off the map. Sometimes that’s easy to forget” and the farmer felt that the man was trying somehow to resist that forgetting. But the man’s attendance had tailed off after a while and he eventually stopped paying the rent.

There had also been some approaches from former members of the ROC Post’s crew, with talk of preserving the post as a historic relic of the Cold War, and seeking funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to do so. But nothing had come of this and the farmer had found all that rather hard to fathom – this place was surely too recent to be archaeological. The photographer assured him that the post had historic interest – and that hundreds of amateur investigators have been working since 1995 on a project to catalogue the twentieth century’s “Defence of Britain” sites across the UK.

2007

Using now-readily available locational data the bunkerologist has programmed his sat-nav to alert him of proximity to any ROC post. Having detected one here, on the outskirts of Wasnott, he strolls across the field and down into the bunker. Inside he finds a burnt out shell. The polystyrene tiles combusted well, coating the underground room in a thick layer of soot, into which recent visitors have written their names and a few faux apocalyptic slogans, echoing the Half Life Video game.  The man takes some photos which he later uploads to an urban exploration forum website, describing his visit thus: “close to minor road and OPEN. As previously reported – empty and burned. Nasty. The site is overgrown and is being undermined by rabbits.”

2013

The farmer has decided to clear away the Wasnott post’s surface features, having heard recently that English Heritage had listed a ROC Post in Yorkshire, he wants to ensure that his site doesn’t attract any restrictive heritage designations. His insurance broker has also worried him by pointing out that he would be liable if anyone were to be injured with the post.

Erasure of the post is easy. The turrets fall with the aid of a towrope and a tractor, and he then grubs out the near-surface remains of the hatch, tumbling the masonry into the ladder well and then overfilling with soil to leave no trace of the ROC’s former presence in this now empty field.

Picture credit: A montage combining a 1979 view of Markyate ROC Post overlayed onto the site’s 2015 Google Earth form. The 1979 photograph is reproduced courtesy of Roland Carr.

Note: Wasnott is not a real place, but all of the quotes are taken from primary sources concerning various ROC Post sites and events at them. References for the quotes are available from me, if desired.