Tuesday, 24 March 2009

an urban fairy story - the new gothic?

never the most prolific of bloggers, february saw the diary reduced to a solitary post rather than the usual four or six. seasoned bloggers normally pop something up to reassure any readers that its soon to be business as usual and to keep tuning in in the meantime. reasons are usually books being edited or fine tuned, art projects and exhibitions being installed, or travels abroad, research for forthcoming projects, books, exhibitions.... all very productive and intimidating!

what was my reason? nothing so glamourous. my life outside of this diary is rather prosaic and not worth the column inch, so its with some apology and sense of absurdity that ive drawn attention to my recent blogging absence at all! february simply saw me attempting to write a fairy story for a magazine whose theme for submissions was fantasy. an unlikely arena for this old flaneur you might think but no. au contraire...

it occured to me that my habit (bordering on obsession) of regaling you dear reader with my romantic reveries of neglected social housing estates such as brunswick, my moated kingdom and home to my coterie of bluestockings, and other modern day ruins and icons such as the mancunian way, the tinsley towers, the umist campus and the holloway wall, is a reimagining or repositioning of the late 20th century as a new gothic, as darkly romantic as the victorian gothic of aubrey beardsley, edgar allen poe, m r james, et al.

and im not alone in this new urban gothic, there's something in the air - as my good friend mr hale recently said, concrete and cooling towers are the lost content of a generation. the new cube exhibition, the british landscape, showcases the work of john davies whose large format black and white photographs, taken between 1979 and 2005 show the vast, complex and majestic scenery of industrial and post industrial britain. its not on for long, just until 18 april, so dont miss it, its beautiful.

spurred on by the exhibition, mr hales comment, a rewriting of rapunzel for our times by the ever enticing shrieking violet, and a child's intuitive likening of a tower block to a castle, i am posting my own humble attempt at evoking a moment in the collective imagination before the mood passes...

it didnt make it into the magazine by the way, so dont expect too much of it!

Once upon a time there lived a solitary little girl.

She lived in the high peaks of the eerie Troglodyte mountains, an abandoned world of soaring stalagmites whose weather beaten towers lay beyond the remotest hamlets and villages at the farthest edge of the Far Northern Territory; a forgotten realm, glowering mysteriously from behind the misty White Moss and the wild Clough End, a dark and dangerous wilderness traversed by few and survived by fewer - a gnarly woodland of tangled groves, knotted vines and hazy hollows inhabited by tribes of bloodthirsty trolls, mischievous boggarts and platoons of nameless beasts who lurked behind each tree and roamed every corner of the twisted undergrowth. Few in the outlying valleys ever ventured into these woods, let alone the White Moss in the vale below. These swirling treacherous bogs enveloped the woodlands with unimaginable terrors; a nether world twixt land and water, twixt living and dead, its swamps and marshes haunted by wraiths, spectres and ghostly apparitions, the melancholic spirits of those foolhardy and unwary souls who had lost their footing on its perilous paths. Only the truly god forsaken journeyed into the White Moss, making the Troglodyte Mountains virtually impregnable.

It was said that no-one had lived in these strange desolate mountains, their tall towers huddled atop their colossal peaks like a ganglion of petrified gargoyles, for nigh on a hundred years. But countless fireside storytellers had woven a thick tapestry of dreams around those mysterious inhabitants of yesteryear. Some spun tales of a giant race of fierce and warlike ogres who had dwelled there long ago, chiselling deep into the mountains and hauling endless rocks and boulders to create their lofty fortresses from where they unleashed a reign of terror on the peaceable villages below until at last they were punished and turned to stone. Others swore they were inhabited even today by a ragtag colony of crones and witches, hags and banshees whose calls might just be heard above the plaintive cries of the night, scratching a squalid living amidst the ruined palaces of a vanished race of heroes. Whatever the truth, there was little to draw anyone to such a remote and impenetrable spot and so the white giants in the north remained derelict and unloved, a vague memory, a folk tale, a bedtime story to frighten the little ones, the legend of the Nine ladies who turned to stone for a forgotten transgression.

But this desolate spot, so feared and foreboding, was in fact still occupied by one little girl, the last of her kind. She lived at the top of a perpendicular stalagmite, a towering column of crumbling concrete as high as the clouds in the sky, with views as far as the eye could see. From here she commanded a panoramic view across its four corners and the lands beyond. On a clear day she could even make out the great Metropolis to the south, a kingdom she had read was crafted entirely from a million glittering shards of glass, a translucent spectacle that was the new wonder of the civilised world, a world away from her gnarly, carbuncled mountains, with sturdy rock pigeons the only neighbours of her craggy roost, resplendent in their iridescent blue and purple coats. Together she and they nestled snugly in the windswept crevices and hollows that she called home. Their morning cooing and cawing was her very own alarm call and together girl and feathered friends would stretch and yawn bleary eyed at each dewy dawn and gaze ahead, at a gigantic adventure playground to explore every day. To her eyes this was no failed idyll or forbidden territory but a magical enchanted place, home of her ancestors and she its last guardian.

If the little girl was solitary she certainly wasn’t lonely, or at least didn’t know it, scarcely remembering human company enough to tell if she missed it. Besides she had the woods, fields, trees and neighbouring towers to clamber, and the company of the foxes, rabbits, birds, bees, butterflies and dragonflies that shared her beautiful wildscape. Gazing out from her bedroom in the clouds she could just make out the vaguest outline of the great highways circling its borders, and nearer, the many winding paths linking the towers to their garden plots and wide lawns with their overgrown flowerbeds. She often whiled away the nights imagining what life had been like once upon a time when the towers had been the heart of a great vision, a utopian dream, a bold rebirth after the devastations of the Great wars. Her bird’s eye view was a living, moving map of the tumbledown geography beneath, the grand creations and perambulations so hidden at street level unexpectedly clear, the familiar routes and daily strolls trodden long ago by her ancestors perfectly revealed.

Back on the ground those paths and flowerbeds reverted to a dense tangle of thorns, bushes and giant weeds as Nature had gradually reclaimed its own. Without constant maintenance the pleasure gardens, spacious dwellings and wide boulevards, once a source of such civic pride, had all too soon returned to bog and marsh, the ramshackle paths, mysterious black circles and thin barren maypoles choking with creeping vines and verdant ivy all that remained of the dreams and aspirations of the vanished empire, its proud ambitions and ideals reduced to pitted potholes and blank eyed citadels. Once upon a time this had been the wonder of the modern world, a dream for a bright new future, its lavish landscape and spacious dwellings heralding a new way of living, a radiant city in which to work, rest and play. The little girl knew nothing of this – it was simply her tangled playground and she alone now inhabited its vast empty spaces knowing its overrun paths, nooks and crannies by heart. And although no-one seemed able to penetrate the obstacles barring the way to the Troglodyte Mountains she had become quite adept at avoiding the many perils, monsters and terrors to enter the world beyond. She had memorized every track and path through the woods and marshlands to the outlying villages – those swirling mosses and fearful forests proved effortless, nimble and fleet of foot as she was, whilst the trolls, wolves and apparitions lurking within them appeared quite tame to her. Eventually she had created her own personal atlas of this deserted realm, a chronicle of her journeys etched into her heart around its edges and boundaries and the routes to the Outer Lands, a personal topography of the terrain that was part cartography, part experience, part identity; an A to Z of her memories, her history, her sense of self.

So the girl lived there, quite at home in the solitude, taking pleasure in its wildness. The Nine ladies, far from being the dark dread of the outside world, were her guardian angels, silent sentinels and keepers of her ancestors’ wisdom. The heart of her universe, a source of never-ending adventure, they fanned the visions of the far beyond that she read about in the books she would pluck from the mantelpieces, bookshelves and libraries gathering dust in her neighbouring cobwebby buildings and apartments. A haven of words and pictures, a vast repository of ideas, thoughts and philosophies, books were her dreaming, where she could hover above the clouds and fly beyond her own horizons. Devouring everything she came across, she would conjure up images of the curious places and strange worlds they described. Books were her friends and confidantes, their absent authors her first brush with human companionship, whose words pierced her heart with linguistic riches, and the legendary Bibliotheca, custodian it was said of all the books ever written, was to become her life’s Quest, her Holy Grail. By day she would forage for new titles, replacing finished reads to their rightful shelves; she was always most careful to keep the books in the same order that she found them! Then in the long summer afternoons when it was just too hot to explore she would settle into a shady nook in one of her favourite wild flower meadows and read in the dappled sunlight. By night she would continue at the top of her turret, her pages illuminated by the immense night skies, the twinkling stars or pale smiling moon….she would gaze out at the distant lights and imagine the adventures awaiting the brave and bold explorer.

Then one day she noticed a small and faded stamp in the corner of a well worn book. She pored over it, curious as to its meaning. It wasn’t part of the title and it definitely wasn’t part of the original print of the book. It was truly a mystery. There was a crest, a heraldic device of some kind and an inscription which read ‘Return to Reading Room, Property of the University Library’. Looking out from her little crow’s nest she was reminded of the legends of the illustrious Libraries of the Ancient Cities of Alexandria and Constantinople and wondered if the magnificent City of Glass to the south might also contain such a treasure. Could this be the location of the University Library embossed into the flyleaf of her book? There was only one way to find out. She determined to set out the very next day on the longest journey she had ever made. It would mean leaving her enchanted home, crossing the White Moss and traversing the whole of Clough End, passing the hamlets and villages beyond to the farthest reaches of the Outer Lands before reaching the mythical City of Glass at the very end of the world, an adventure to match any she had read of, to be sure. She packed only the barest necessities for the harsh journey ahead and most carefully of all the book with the precious inscription in its flyleaf, key to the kingdom of knowledge ahead. As each day passed she looked back encouraged that her gentle guardian angels the Nine Towers were still visible and pressed ever onwards, the pages of all the books still to read urging her on in search of the Great Library.

Eventually the solitary girl from the desolate mountains entered the City walls and the magical realm of Knowledge and Learning enclosed under the grand dome of its celebrated library. Bewitched in the endless walkways and colossal stacks of books and journals, many years were to pass before she emerged from her travels in the scriptorium. But subtle signs of her childhood years persisted. She was never able to sleep amidst the everyday noises of the metropolis in their normal two storey houses but instead made for turrets or the highest attics, craving her remote battlements and the plaintive cries of the wolves, boggarts and shadowy spectres that dwelled in the treacherous swamps and misty plains of her homelands. Her peculiar affinity for the urban pigeons always confounded the city dwellers, their grimy blue – grey feathers reminding her of the resplendent coats of the rock pigeons she had long shared her crows nest perch with, whilst her unfathomable affection for neglected concrete architecture in unloved corners of a city in awe of glass and brightly coloured plastic never failed to raise eyebrows. In short, despite all the treasures of the great library, she never felt quite as at home as she once had, alone in her deserted, enchanted towers.

And so at last she began the long journey back to the Troglodyte Mountains. As she drew nearer, it seemed to her that the peaks had diminished and its tall towers looked smaller than she recalled. She wasn’t even sure she was in the vicinity for try as she might she couldn’t count her Nine Ladies on the horizon. In confusion, she stopped at the nearest hamlet, now a busy plaza and shopping centre, to ask what had become of her guardian angels, totems of her ancestors, and learned that most of the ugly old gargoyles had finally been demolished, just one or two allowed to remain, fashionably renovated in bright and cheery facia and fancy plastic fittings. Soon she could see for herself that the entire area had been given a makeover, the tangled forests and knotted paths tidied up and smart new bijoux houses with tiny back yards replacing those wide expanses of unused real estate.

Her brooding mountains, those remote and desolate stalagmites whose tall towers perched atop enormous peaks were gone, their fierce, forbidding architecture, wild tangled gardens, potholed streets and boulevards now vanquished. There would be no more tales on dark nights by the fireside of a giant race of fierce and warlike ogres who had dwelled there long ago, no more nursery fears of swamps and marshes haunted by wraiths, spectres and ghostly apparitions, no lost souls haunting the ancient paths and tracks across the mosses, not in Fresh Fields, the bright, clean and clinical kingdom of the new all conquering Lego people.

Her enchanted realm has a different name and another life now, its wild places, wolves, foxes, dragonflies, birds, bees and butterflies displaced with the clearances and like them she is banished, all that remains an atlas inscribed in her heart - a map of a life lived in the ruins of her ancestors, a personal geography of faded glories, wide boulevards, lofty ideals, a wonder of the modern world, a vision for a bright new future, a radiant city: an A to Z of her identity, her history, her sense of self.

No, this tame new world can never be her home...


richard barrett said...

hi ep,

liked the story a lot. seemed to be commenting, to me, on the potentially alienating effects of education...just liked the whole mood of the piece though really.

and i'd definitely agree that there's a certain gothic quality to some of the areas and buildings of this city...


Bluestocking said...

hi richard,

thats most kind. i dont write as you know, just ramble on topics that take my fancy around the city, so this was torture! its hardly any length at all with no plot to speak of but it still nearly killed me! wont be trying it again in a hurry...

my intention i suppose was merely to use the format of a traditional fair tale to tackle the myths and stereotypes around the whole issue of social housing, but inevitably resorting to another - that of romantising it instead. so often still in the media and regeneration reports etc the environment of my youth and what remains today, is described lazily as 'grim' or 'desolate', no go areas to be cleaned up and forgotten. but to those brought up on them, things very often look different, not bleak, just home.

its something of this inside vs outside perspective that the firy tale attempts to articulate and to expose or remind us of just how exclusive these regenerations, these clean ups might be, with the results often out of reach for its original inhabitants, effectively locked out, a banishment of sorts from their neighbourhoods, memories and identity. also i wanted to evoke a geography, a landscape and archaeology of this fractured utopia, of the sort i might consider as a prehistorian, of the experience of someone living there and later excavating and trying to make sense of the physical traces left behind.

this all sounds ridiculous im sure but its interesting that you noticed the very bit of the story i was trying not to tell, a more personal one of my own 60's upbringing i suppose, of someone who left this far flung bit of north manchester and escaped to university to find salvation, or at least a place to 'fit in' only to find inevitably that at the end you fit in in neither!

richard barrett said...

hello ep,

i think i found echoes of some of my own experience in yr story.

cheers for the mention in the histories festival post!

and...apologies for my importunity, but...didn't you mention something about lending me a book recently...?