Washington Irving and the Headless Horseman

Washington Irving was an American writer who spent much of his early literary career living in England.  But I only discovered recently, while doing some research for a piece on the Old Dee Bridge, that he was also a frequent visitor to Chester.  When he first visited the city in 1825 he would have travelled from London by coach; an uncomfortable journey lasting several days.  At least he was able to find some comfort in the inns he stayed at along the way:

…that picture of convenience, neatness and broad honest enjoyment, the kitchen of an English inn.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Irving was impressed by Chester and loved to explore its Roman ruins and medieval streets.  As a student of European folklore, he also found much to pique his interest.  Taking a stroll one day from the centre of Chester across the sandstone arches of the Old Dee Bridge he came across a maypole on the Handbridge side of the river:

I shall never forget the delight I felt on first seeing a May-pole. It was on the banks of the Dee, close by the picturesque old bridge that stretches across the river from the quaint little city of Chester. I had already been carried back into former days by the antiquities of that venerable place… the May-pole on the margin of that poetic stream completed the illusion. My fancy adorned it with wreaths of flowers and peopled the green bank with all the dancing revelry of May-day. The mere sight of this May-pole gave a glow to my feelings and spread a charm over the country for the rest of the day.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

Sadly, the maypole, although once a fixture at the Handbridge end of the bridge for many years, is now long gone.

Irving’s interest in folklore and the uncanny manifested itself in many of his short stories; Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow being amongst the best known.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is set in 1790 in a secluded valley called Sleepy Hollow in a predominantly Dutch area of upstate New York.  The area is alive with tales of ghosts and hauntings, the most terrifying of which is the legend of the Headless Horseman.  The horseman, as explained by locals to Ichabod Crane, a newly-arrived schoolmaster from Connecticut, was a soldier who lost his head in battle to a stray cannon-ball.  On dark nights he rides through the valley still, they insist, with his head tucked under his arm.

One night, riding home from the farm of Katrina Van Tassel, the young woman he intends to marry, Crane is chased by the Headless Horseman and, in fear for his life, flees Sleepy Hollow never to be seen in the area again.  The reader is left to ponder whether Crane’s pursuer was really a terrifying spectre, or merely a love-rival in disguise.

Irving’s tale has endured and, indeed, it has been filmed on several occasions, the most recent being Tim Burton’s adaptation in 1999.  But he did not invent the idea of the headless horseman; folk tales of headless earth-bound spirits on horseback abound throughout Europe.  In England Cheshire seems to be particularly cursed by such legends.  No doubt Irving, with his active interest in folklore, would have encountered many of these tales during his visits to Chester.

Wybunbury, some twenty-seven south of Chester, has long been home to a widespread headless horseman myth.  He is said to ride across Wybunbury Moss, a boggy area just outside the village.  The Moss is also home to one of the North of England’s many Ginny Greenteeth legends: the green-skinned, sharp-toothed hag who emerges from ponds and pools and pulls the unwary in to their doom.  Another headless horseman, allegedly the ghost of a slain Royalist from the English Civil War, is said to ride out on a lonely lane near Halton, to the north of Chester.

However, Irving’s interest in headless spirit mythology seems to have been ignited by one particular encounter that occurred when he was travelling by coach from Birmingham to Chester.  The coach stopped at a village called Duddon, eight miles or so east of Chester.  Irving was intrigued as to why the village inn was called The Headless Woman.  The landlord explained to him that it was named after a woman called Grace Trigg, a servant to a local Royalist family, who was beheaded in the attic of the inn by rampaging Parliamentary troops.  She regularly haunts the inn, the landlord warned, and seeing her was a sign of impending disaster for the person concerned.

Against the landlord’s advice, Irving insisted on staying the night at the inn and had a bed made up in the attic room.  He kept a vigil all night, but did not see the headless woman.  He did, however, claim to have heard a woman sobbing in the night and, in the morning, found a patch of blood on the floor of the attic.

Prompted by his experience in Cheshire, Irving spent several months researching headless ghost tales.  He found that that their incidence was ubiquitous throughout the British Isles.  Many of the legends involved headless horsemen, tales of which have persisted right through until the present day.  Irving would be amused, no doubt, to learn that his fictional The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is still the best-known of these stories.

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Hear Her Walk

In a house, in a town lived a man and a woman.  With them lived the woman’s uncle.

The man and woman wanted a child, but no child arrived.

In the attic, the man made a boy from steel and wires.  The woman watched as the steel boy walked down the stairs and stood in the hall.

Together they dressed him in a coat with a hood then took him out to walk.  Uncle came too.

Hear Her Walk 1

 

But the boy’s battery ran flat and he collapsed into a steely heap.  Lifeless.

The man took the coat with the hood and held it up.  “I give you life,” he said.

The emptiness of the coat filled and it began to walk, its steps resounding on the pavement slabs.

The man walked beside the coat, keeping pace with it.  He pulled back the hood.

A little girl with dark hair smiled up at him.  He took one of the girl’s hands and the woman joined them and took the other.

Together they walked home, the three of them holding hands.  Uncle came too, carrying a tangle of steel and wires.

They lived together in the house: the man, the woman and the little girl in the coat.  And Uncle too.

The little girl did not like the dark.  At bedtime on that first night the man said goodnight and switched off the light.

But the little girl screamed and clung to him tightly, begging for him to bring back the light.  The lights were never switched off again.

Come the next day the little girl in the coat made it clear she did not want the man, the woman or the uncle to leave the house.  Ever.

Uncle said this was too much and got up to go.  The little girl took his hand and he fell to the floor, his body lifeless but his eyes still open and alert.

He watched as the little girl gently took the man’s hand and soothed him to rest on the floor too.  She then did the same with the woman.

She placed the three of them on the sofa: the man, the woman and the uncle sitting side by side.  So still.  With doll-like bodies and life-like eyes they had no choice but to sit and watch.

Hear Her Walk 2

 

The little girl in the coat walked into the hall, then up the stairs to the landing and from there up to the attic.

She then walked back down again, her footsteps sounding heavy on the stairs.

She entered the living room and smiled at her family on the sofa, then turned and repeated her walk through the house.  Again and again.  Always.

 

Today I awoke from a dream with tears of sadness in my eyes and my heart racing with fear.  This fable arrived fully formed in that dream.  It conveys an underlying truth.  Can you not hear her walk?

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Waterland: Memories Dissolve

A bridge that divides.

Border country, and in my mind

I’m so close to the edge.

But fly-strewn water fills my mouth,

and drowns all possible words.

Waterland River DeeCold pellets of rain beating a tattoo on the gore-tex fabric of my coat.  I stand on the old sandstone bridge that that links the villages of Holt and Farndon.  The River Dee, her belly swollen with water from the Welsh hills and her surface a soupy brown, flows by almost reaching the top of the stone arches.  Scenes from Graham Swift’s Waterland play out in my mind.

Waterland River DeeWaterland River DeeI had planned to follow the English bank of the Dee north towards Aldford, retracing in reverse a previous walk when I photographed many of Farndon’s plotlander chalets.  But the riverbank is flooded and the footpath is inaccessible, so I cross the bridge and pick up the path on the Welsh side of the river.

Waterland River DeeWaterland River DeeIt was on the other bank that Gwil and his brother told me they’d found an impromptu coffee shop a few weeks before: an empty wooden chalet with a sign telling anyone passing to come inside, help themselves to a drink and leave a donation in the honesty box if they wished.  I wanted to see this for myself.  It sounded like one of Lesley’s ventures and her old chalet, which I think she still owned, was round about where they described finding the coffee shop.

Waterland River DeeThe river glowers and threatens.  Here on the Welsh bank a lower lying meadow over to the left of the footpath is flooded: a newly-formed shallow lake.  Wild fowl sit and bob mindfully upon its surface.  It occurs to me that with one shrug the main flow of the river could breach its banks and link up with this lake.  I shiver as a sudden breeze blows icy droplets of rain into my face.

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Beryl’s family had a chalet somewhere along her on the early 1950s; she was just a girl at the time.  The meadow used to flood every winter then too.  But the summers were dry and she remembers rowing upstream to a spring near the riverbank where she could collect fresh water.  Beryl lives in New Zealand now but this place lives on in her memory.

Waterland River DeeWaterland River DeeAfter a mile or so the path comes to end at a bend in the river where the track is engulfed by the pop-up lake.  Two chalets sit marooned on an island between the waters of the lake and those of the Dee.  There are two vehicles outside the further of the two chalets and it appears to be occupied.  But the nearer one is seemingly empty and abandoned, its structure gradually slipping back into the earth from which it sprang.

Waterland River DeeWaterland River DeeWaterland River DeeWhat years, what lives.  Memories dissolve and consciousness is washed clean by ancient waters.

That’s the way it is: life includes a lot of empty space. We are one-tenth living tissue, nine-tenths water; life is one-tenth Here and Now, nine-tenths a history lesson. For most of the time the Here and Now is neither now nor here.

Graham Swift – Waterland

 

 

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A Child of the Jago, by Arthur Morrison

The Jago is not only a geographical area but an existential state of desperation

A Child of the Jago is London-born journalist Arthur Morrison’s best known novel. It was first published in November 1896 and is set in a fictional East End slum known as the Jago, which Morrison based a real district called the Old Nichol. The Old Nichol was a rookery of squalid dwellings squeezed into a slice of land between Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road in London’s East End. It was demolished in the mid-1890s and replaced by London’s first experiment with council housing, the Boundary Estate.

A Child of the Jago The Old Nichol was built around 1800 and comprised a labyrinth of thirty or so narrow streets and alleyways. Most of the area’s inhabitants were crammed into oppressive one-room flats with no sanitation or running water. The very bricks and mortar oozed with despair. To outsiders the streets of the Old Nichol were mysterious, threatening and laden with the threat of violence, but to the area’s residents its network of narrow streets provided a place of rapid escape and shelter from enemies, particularly the police.

Morrison’s Jago reproduced the street-pattern of the Old Nichol, with only the street names changed. His narrative centres on one family, the Perrotts, who lived in a one-room lodging in a courtyard Morrison called Jago Court. In the original Old Nichol this was known as Orange Court and the writer described it as: ‘the inner hell of this awful place’.
A Child of the Jago explores the influence of a sense of place upon the human psyche. For Morrison the very geography of the streets of the Jago produces a certain mentality: just like the winding passageways of the slum its inhabitants are furtive, guarded, and secretive; they operate by their own rules and not those of the society outside their own narrow confines. Home to the people of the Jago comprises ‘foul rat runs, these alleys, not to be traversed by a stranger’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The child of the book’s title is Dicky Perrott, a lad of seven or eight when we first meet him. Dicky is presented as a decent boy at heart, but he becomes inexorably corrupted by the conditions in which he lives. There are only three ways out of the Jago one of its elderly residents, Old Beveridge, tells Dicky: the gaol, the gallows or to become one of the East End’s handful of gangster elite, the ‘high mobsmen’.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Child of the Jago opens on an oppressively hot summer night when many of the residents of the Jago have chosen to sleep outdoors rather than within their airless dwellings. A stranger walking through the area is set upon, robbed and left unconscious in the street. Meanwhile young Dicky Perrott wanders home and finds his mother and baby sister trying to sleep. He finds nothing but a dry crust of bread to eat. Shortly afterwards his father, Josh Perrott, arrives home. Pretending to be asleep, Dicky notices that he is carrying a cosh matted with blood and hair.


The next day Dicky slips into a church mission event hoping to get free tea and cake. An opportunity presents itself for Dicky to steal a bishop’s gold watch and he does so, thinking of the food it will buy for his family. Pleased with himself, he returns home and hands it to his father, who promptly beats Dicky, but keeps the watch for himself.
Thus Dicky learns a harsh lesson about life in the Jago: any hint of sharing and generosity is regarded as weakness and only the cunning and devious will prosper:

Whoever was too young, too old or too weak to fight for it must keep what he had well hidden, in the Jago.

Dicky begins to steal regularly and falls in with the local fence, Aaron Weech, who encourages him to be ever bolder. He also learns to fight, joining in the feuds between the two clans that rule the Jago and on occasion getting involved in the pitched battles with the mob from the neighbouring slum, Dove Lane.


A Child of the Jago charts nine years of Dicky Perrott’s life in his East End slum, from the summer night when we first encounter him to the afternoon when his nemesis from Dove Street, Bobby Roper, pulls a blade on him in a street fight and the book reaches its inevitable conclusion. This is no Oliver Twist, despite there being several superficial similarities between the two books there is no happy ending in A Child of the Jago. Indeed, Morrison seems to suggest that there is no hope of redemption for any of the inhabitants of the Jago, a stance which drew widespread criticism at the time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morrison spent several months in the Old Nichol quietly conducting research for his book. He walked the area’s streets and talked to its people in the company of the local parish priest, Reverend Arthur Jay. Jay was the only outsider whose presence was tolerated by the inhabitants of the Old Nichol and he tried to improve the lot of the area’s young people by providing food and schooling.

Father Sturt, one of the few characters with any positive influence in A Child of the Jago, is based on Reverend Jay. Like Jay in real life, Father Sturt is the driving force behind having the slum gradually demolished and replaced by improved social housing. But just like Arthur Jay, Sturt was pessimistic that anything could be done to change the ways of the adults of the area: only with the younger children did he believe there was any hope of deliverance from the malign, corrupting influence of the Jago.

Cleeve Buildings, Boundary Estate

 

Sturt recognises something positive in Dicky Perrott and secures for him a job with a respectable local shopkeeper, Mr Grinder. Dicky works hard, learns quickly and things go well at first. But then Weech, having lost one of his best young thieves and fearful he will be exposed, feeds Grinder’s ear with poisonous rumours about Dicky and gets him sacked, pushing him back into the clutches of the Jago.

 Most contemporary critics refused to accept that Morrison’s descriptions of the degradation and savagery of the Jago were based on fact. On the other hand, socialist reviewers, such as Robert Blatchford of The Clarion, said that Morrison played down some of the more appalling elements of life in the Jago: the brutal violence, sexual abuse, incest and prostitution.

 

 

 

Modern-day historians accept that Morrison’s account, while it is bolted onto a fictional story, accurately reflects the reality of life in the East End of London at that time. Yet Morrison reserves the worst of his contempt for the high-minded philanthropists who tried to exert their influence on the Jago; only his friend Reverend Arthur Jay escapes this criticism. But Jay, like many at that time who had views that were otherwise socially progressive, also held some fundamentally reactionary ideas about the nature of those at the bottom of the social order.
Well-meaning people, even many who described themselves as socialists, despaired of the seeming unwillingness of the poor to improve themselves, to break free from the corrupting grip of places like the Old Nichol. Max Nordau’s twisting of Darwin’s work on evolution into notions of societal degeneration and coldly mad ideas such as eugenics were widely supported in the fin de siècle era.

Shoreditch 2017, the name Jago appropriated by a pricy artisan clothing shop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yet in the end it is the Jago that wins. Dicky Perrott embraces it and it breaks him, body and soul. To navigate the Jago’s labyrinthine streets, to have knowledge its ways, Morrison seems to say, is to have knowledge of evil.

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Sulphur – an Interview with Christopher Ian Smith

Sulphur is a new short film by Christopher Ian Smith.  It is a macabre experiment across documentary and horror.  Sulphur dives head first into the folk traditions and ceremonial weirdness of bonfire night in Lewes, Sussex, an annual event of ritual, some anti-catholicism, and lots of fire.

The shoot involved sending two crews and two actors into the furnace to explore the peccadilloes and darker dimensions of our odd, English folk traditions.

Sulphur features a soundtrack with the analogue electronics of Concretism.  It was edited by audiovisual master Xavier Perkins .

 

Interview with Christopher Ian Smith

Bobby Seal: Can I ask about the film’s title first of all? The word sulphur suggests a whiff of something demonic as in Milton’s visions of Hell, but it also brings to mind gunpowder, Papist plots and the horrors of early-modern warfare.

Chris Smith: There are several reasons for this name – one you’ve pinpointed is the link to the gunpowder plot. I saw sulphur (or sulfur) as the seed of the fire, the crackling fuse of a disaster averted, but also the spark of celebratory fires and fireworks that followed.

Also – sulphur is a more contemporary description of Brimstone, a word which conjures age-old biblical descriptions of hell and damnation. I like the idea that it is this film is a contemporary (through its young characters) look at older traditions and folklore.

There is also a link to William Blake’s use of the word in his poetry – with both negative and positive connotations in the exploits of the characters of Orc and Urizen – who represent vital spirit/rebellion and tradition respectively.

Sulphur Poster

BS: From their first shot under the flyover we get a sense that the two central characters are outsiders, not part of mainstream society.  They then stumble into the Lewes bonfire night celebrations; a festival which, in its origins, proclaims Catholicism as something alien and not quite English.  How important is this idea of the outsider to the film?

CS: Very important. Not to highlight the reaction to Catholicism as an outside influence, meddling from the Vatican etc. but to explore the way we react to the traditions and folklore of others. There are two main reactions to  experiencing age-old traditions– you either respect and contribute (if an option) or you don’t. The townsfolk of Lewes take bonfire night seriously – with six bonfire societies planning all-year round. Parades, costumes and bonfires. If, as a spectator, you don’t apply some respect someone will let you know. When I first visited the event, nearly twenty years ago – there was a palpable tension between the townsfolk and outside visitors. I wanted the film to tap into this, but also retain a respect for the town and its traditions.

Neither of the characters are locals. I cast Alex as a London boy, Rakel is Scandinavian and plays the role as such.  I didn’t reveal a great deal to the actors about what to expect, so their responses were authentic – wonder, surprise, fear…. One of the character’s experiences is negative and the other is positive, polarised by the extreme environment.

So many great horrors and thrillers develop tension that develops between a rural or isolated people and the outside interloper. I wanted to tap into that trope through a real-life tradition.

BS: It was so good of the town of Lewes to put on such a wonderful show for you and your film crew!  But at a practical level you only get one shot at it: the festival only happens on one evening each year.  Was that a logistical problem for you?

CS: It was a challenge but then filming in the real world always is. Unless you are on a soundstage you are never in full control of outside elements. In some ways the event made things easier – it’s a cracking spectacle in a town full of character – so the art direction and locations were sorted!

I had a window between projects so I only decided to shoot the film a week before the 5th November. So the biggest challenge was finding cast and crew who were available, capable and willing in that short timescale.

On the day/night we split the crew into two units – one a Steadicam with the actors with, the other focused on shooting the observational footage and landscapes. We kept in contact through the night and came together for the grand bonfire finale. The team on this mainly had a documentary background, perfect for this shoot. We had to be bold with what we shot and how we shot it.

BS: You capture some startling imagery from the streets of Lewes: flaming crosses, masked faces and burning tar barrels.  On the surface this is a commemoration of the Reformation and the gunpowder plot.  But does all this fiery imagery hint at something older beneath the surface, perhaps even pre-Christian?

CS: I’ve heard a few tales and rumours about Lewes’ pagan history, including mention of a confluence of ley lines. But maybe the Lewes event is something deeper in the human psyche rather than just the people of Lewes. It’s a fantastic way to remember the past, dress up, set things on fire and share a unique experience with others. This seems to occur in so many places with a significant history – and not just in northern Europe.

BS: Do you find the term folk-horror a useful description of a certain type of film, or indeed a book or other art form?

CS: Common threads in work that falls into this category seem to be rural locations, the prevalence of landscape, folklore and magic(k) – not necessarily horror or the black arts. So is it accurate? Maybe not.

However, if this category allows like-minded people to share and experience art that fuels their enjoyment of it, then fantastic. The Folk Horror Revival site and events is a great example. This and other specialist interest groups are the only reason I still use Facebook.

Major influences on me are TV writers of the 70s (Nigel Kneale, David Rudkin, Alan Garner, Terrance Dicks), the landscapes of neo-romantics painters Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash, T.S Eliot, and filmmakers including John Carpenter, Peter Weir and Michael Haneke. The marvellous thing is, I know I’m not alone…

BS: So what’s next, Chris?  What are you working on at the moment?

CS: My main focus right now is the feature documentary New Town Utopia. It’s probably closer to the genre of psychogeography than Sulphur as it’s main character is a place – the town of Basildon, Essex – and we explore its history through memory, poetry, music  and moving image. Architecture, place and environment play a crucial role in the film. The people who feature in the film are a fantastic bunch of characters – artists and activists from the town who’ve led challenging, funny and sometimes tragic lives.

I’ve been working on this on and off for 4 years.  Its a labour of love about a place I grew up close to and the film touches on society, politics and the power of art. It is particularly resonant now as it explores the attitudes and issues that led to a town like Basildon voting strongly in favour of Brexit.

It’s a town 30 miles from London, planned by Westminster and originally populated by migrants from the city, however it’s been forgotten, neglected and left behind like so many towns across the UK.

We ran a successful Kickstarter campaign last year and we’re now deep into post production – working on a rough cut and the soundtrack.

The Editor is Neil Lenthall – his NFTS student film won at Sheffield Doc/Fest a few years ago and it will have an original score by the neo-classical and experimental musician Greg Haines. I’m excited to see it completed and we’re working on a strategy to get as many eyeballs on the film as possible. This will be through film festivals, community screenings and an outreach programme to try and inspire social change and activism.

New Town Utopia has also evolved evolving into a book project (of poetry and photography) and an art installation – so 2017 is all about realising this project and getting it out into the world.

BS: Thanks for your time Chris, and good luck with both Sulphur and New Town Utopia.

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E. M. Forster’s London

“To speak against London is no longer fashionable. The Earth as an artistic cult has had its day, and the literature of the near future will probably ignore the country and seek inspiration from the town. One can understand the reaction. Of Pan and the elemental forces, the public has heard a ‘little too much–they seem Victorian, while London is Georgian–and those who care for the earth with sincerity may wait long ere the pendulum swings back to her again. Certainly London fascinates. One visualises it as a tract of quivering grey, intelligent without purpose, and excitable without love; as a spirit that has altered before it can be chronicled; as a heart that certainly beats, but with no pulsation of humanity. It lies beyond everything; Nature, with all her cruelty, comes nearer to us than do these crowds of men. A friend explains himself; the earth is explicable–from her we came, and we must return to her.”

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“But who can explain Westminster Bridge Road or Liverpool Street in the morning–the city inhaling–or the same thoroughfares in the evening–the city exhaling her exhausted air? We reach in desperation beyond the fog, beyond the very stars, the voids of the universe are ransacked to justify the monster, and stamped with a human face. London is religion’s opportunity–not the decorous religion of theologians, but anthropomorphic, crude. Yes, the continuous flow would be tolerable if a man of our own sort–not any one pompous or tearful–were caring for us up in the sky.”

E.M. Forster – Howards End (1910)

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Elsewhere: A Journal of Place

 

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

 

I missed the first three editions of Elsewhere but, on the strength of this the fourth issue, I’m looking forward to delving back into each of them.

Elsewhere’s strap line is ‘a journal of place’, a very apt description of its contents. Edition 04, published in September 2016, delivers up writings on London, Wales, Madeira, Prague, Hawaii and a several other global locations. The pieces on offer are highly disparate, but all are unified by their adherence to a common theme: maps. What is the significance of maps and how are they created? What is it that they tell us about the places featured and what questions do they raise about the people who live there? These are the questions addressed in this edition.

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Elsewhere is edited by Paul Scraton, an Englishman living in Berlin. There is no better place, perhaps, than the German capital in which to base a journal that embraces a global sense of place. Berlin, by consequence of its unique location and history, is not just a European crossroads but a world city: a cosmopolitan sorting house of connections.

I was brought up in Wales and many of my childhood holidays were spent in Anglesey, so Scraton’s essay reflecting on a return visit to Rhoscolyn, where he spent several summers as a child, was of particular interest to me.

American cartographer Jake Coolidge argues that maps shape our perception of place with such power that their authority is rarely questioned. But they are drawn by humans and are inevitably subject to the fixed assumptions and biases of their creators. This subjectivity is hard to avoid, but Coolidge encourages those using maps to at least approach the task with this knowledge in mind.

Daniel Reeve, on the other hand, consciously makes no effort to achieve the chimera that is objective reality. Reeve is a New Zealander and produces antique-style maps of imaginary places. The maps he created for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy and The Hobbit are amongst his best-known works.

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Jeanette Farrell is an Irish writer living in South London who seems to delight in shining a light onto some of the forgotten corners of her adopted city. She writes about Ormside Street in Bermondsey and admits that ‘this packet of South London is spectacularly grey’. But a closer examination on foot leads her to conclude that the area is a ‘clandestine wonder’.

Stephen Glennon writes about a place that one might describe as a clandestine country. The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic is a self-declared independent nation squeezed into a slice of formerly Moldovan land between the Dniester River and the Ukraine. It is a state with no international recognition, but on a visit to its capital, Tiraspol, on Independence Day Glennon discovers a firm sense of national identity. His piece is accompanied by some striking images by the Italian photographer, Chiara Dazi.

Elsewhere is a journal that is about far more than just words. Our sense of place, our perception of the locations we visit, is rooted in all of our physical and cognitive senses. It is fitting, therefore, that Elsewhere is effectively brought to life by the work of its Creative Director and illustrator, Julia Stone. Stone’s illustrations do more than give the journal its unifying identity, though they happen to do that very effectively. Her key creative input is to pair each article with original images that add to its meaning.

The very word Elsewhere encompasses multiple layers of meaning. Many of the journal’s contributors write about an ‘elsewhere’ that they have visited. Others are exiles and, for them, ‘elsewhere’ has become their new home. Just as interesting, however, are the pieces provided by writers returning to a place they once knew, such as Paul Scraton’s essays on Rhoscolyn and Prague. In doing so he sees a once familiar place with a fresh pair of eyes. It is as if in going back somewhere we suddenly find it has become elsewhere.

 

You can buy your copy of Elsewhere here

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The House: The Poetics of Space

A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability.  We are constantly re-imagining its reality: to distinguish all these images would be to describe the soul of the house; it would mean developing a veritable psychology of the house.

To bring order into these images, I believe that we should consider two principal connecting themes:

  1. A house is imagined as a vertical being. It rises upward. It differentiates itself in terms of its verticality. It is one of the appeals to our consciousness of verticality.
  2. A house is imagined as a concentrated being. It appeals to our consciousness of centrality.1411799121938

 

These themes are no doubt very abstractly stated. But with examples, it is not hard to recognize their psychologically concrete nature.

Verticality is ensured by the polarity of cellar and attic, the marks of which are so deep that, in a way, they open up two very different perspectives for a phenomenology of the imagination. Indeed, it is possible, almost without commentary, to oppose the rationality of the roof to the irrationality of the cellar. A roof tells its raison d’etre right away: it gives mankind shelter from the rain and sun he fears. Geographers are constantly reminding us that, in every country, the slope of the roofs is one of the surest indications of the climate. We “understand” the slant of a roof. Even a dreamer dreams rationally; for him, a pointed roof averts rain clouds. Up near the roof all our thoughts are clear. In the attic it is a pleasure to see the bare rafters of the strong framework. Here we participate in the carpenter’s solid geometry.

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As for the cellar, we shall no doubt find uses for it. It will be rationalized and its conveniences enumerated. But it is first and foremost the dark entity of the house, the one that partakes of subterranean forces. When we dream there, we are in harmony with the irrationality of the depths.

 

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1958)

Edition quoted from: Penguin Classics, London, 2014

Translation: Maria Jolas

Cover illustration: Nick Misani

 

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Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin

The flâneuse does exist, whenever we have deviated from the paths laid out for us, lighting out for our own territories.

ncs_modified20160728091228maxw640maxh427ar-160729175Lauren Elkin is well-qualified to write this book, not only has she lived in Paris, London, New York, Tokyo and Venice, but she has walked the city streets of all of them. If the female manifestation of Baudelaire’s flâneur really does exist, and Elkin contends that she does, then the writer herself is a personification of the idea.

Elkin is an American cultural critic and is currently an academic at the University of Liverpool. Her book is an exhilarating conflation of her personal journey and her wanderings blended with a wider reflection on the female experience of the modern city. In doing so she invokes the works of a host of female writers, including Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Mavis Gallant, Martha Gellhorn and Doris Lessing and, with a refreshingly light touch, she draws on the works of academics such as Griselda Pollock and Homi Bhabha.

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Walking is mapping with your feet. It helps you piece a city together, connecting up neighbourhoods that might otherwise have remained discrete entities, different planets bound to each other, sustained yet remote.

Baudelaire’s flâneur, of course, was invariably male. He had leisure time and displayed a somewhat detached attitude, being characterised by his creator as a dandy or dilettante. The flâneur, therefore, was a device that examined the city through exclusively male eyes. Chris Jenks, in his Visual Culture, refers to an ‘imbalance of ocular practice’ in nineteenth-century writing whereby ‘women do not look, they are looked at’. Until the rise of modernism there was little or no literary depiction of urban street-life from a female viewpoint. Until the early twentieth-century and writers like Woolf, Elkin seems to suggest, the flâneuse was invisible and her narrative was silent.

Women have always featured in the street-life of the city, but these were almost exclusively working-class women going about their work and, in a society dominated by wealthy men, their voices went largely unheard. Women were excluded from the literary streetscape of the nineteenth-century city; only those women whose sexuality could be commodified attracted the attention of male writers.

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Unwanted attention: American woman in Florence, 1951. Ruth Orkin, Orkin/Engel film and photo archive

Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, Djuna Barnes and other female modernist writers broke new ground by presenting female characters who were free to move through, to gaze at and to explore the streets of the city. The early twentieth-century was a time of rapidly expanding horizons for women, or at least for middle-class women. They moved from the drawing room to the thoroughfares of the city and, soon, fiction began to reflect this development. The change encompassed expanding opportunities in work and leisure activities and included everything from transport, shopping, and fashion to employment, education, and politics.

Elkin takes issue with those commentators who suggest that the word flâneuse is meaningless because flânerie, by its very nature, is an exclusively male occupation. It’s true that this was the case in the time of Baudelaire and with the leisured wanderers of the arcades of nineteenth-century Paris. But Elkin offers ample evidence to suggest that the flâneuse was alive, well and walking in twentieth-century London, Paris, Tokyo and New York.

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A woman strolls past the Trocadero and Eiffel Tower in 1920s Paris, H Armstrong-Roberts Classicstock/Getty Images

Lauren Elkin suggests that flânerie, in its guise of psychogeography, has become something of a male club in recent years. More specifically middle-aged British men, Will Self concedes, each of them to a man Gore-Tex clad and prostate-swollen. But women walkers are still there she argues, citing Laura Oldfield Ford as a contemporary London example. But perhaps it is the case that the flâneuse does not shout about it as loudly as her male counterpart. Women city wanderers, Elkin contends, still feel themselves to be the object of the male gaze and their bodies subjected to sexual commodification:

And it’s the centre of cities where women have been empowered, by plunging into the heart of them, and walking where they’re not meant to. Walking where other people (men) walk without eliciting comment. That is the transgressive act. You don’t need to crunch around in Gore-Tex to be subversive, if you’re a woman. Just walk out your front door.

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An Unreliable Guide to London

This is a guide to a city you never knew existed, right on your doorstep.  Blink and you’ll miss it.

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We live in London.  We come from Monserrat and Mexico, India and New Zealand, Horley and Hastings, but this is 2016 and we are all Londoners now.  We live in the parts of the city other guidebooks do not reach: in Willesden, Hanwell and Colliers Wood.  We write about the places that are unloved and ill-served.

We travel from Dalston to Staples Corner on the 266.  We search for optical illusions on Islington street corners and discover that London’s ‘scars are worn inside’.

Mrs Dalloway goes to Mulberry’s to buy flowers and Katherine Mansfield’s Rosemary browses for antiques in Curzon Street.  We, on the other hand, shop at Curry’s and PC World, and in doing so discover that both shops are one and the same.

We are the writers of whom some will claim they’ve never heard.  Perhaps we do not even exist.  But we map this city with our words and fill its spaces with our breath.  We are London.

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About the book

An Unreliable Guide to London brings together 23 stories about the lesser known parts of a world renowned city. Stories that stretch the reader’s definition of the truth and question reality. Stories of wind nymphs in South Clapham tube station, the horse sized swan at Brentford Ait, sleeping clinics in Islington and celebrations for St Margaret’s Day of the Dead.

An Unreliable Guide to London is the perfect summer read for city dwellers up and down the country. With a list of contributors reflecting the multi-layered, complex social structures of the city, it is the guide to London, showing you everything that you never knew existed.

Authors: 

M John Harrison; Chloe Aridjis; Yvvette Edwards; Courttia Newland; Will Wiles; Noo Saro-Wiwa; Nikesh Shukla; Juliet Jacques; Salena Godden; Stephen Thompson; Irenosen Okojie; Sunny Singh; Paul Ewen; Tim Burrows; George F.; Gareth E. Rees; Aki Schilz; Tim Wells; Koye Oyedeji; Eley Williams; Stephanie Victoire

Buy From:

Influx Press here

Or any good local bookshop

 

 

 

 

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