The Buried Giant

The rocks they had discussed from below now loomed before them and Axl could see, as they came ever nearer, how they were arranged in a rough semi-circle around the top of a mound to the side of their path.

Buried Giant 7Buried Giant 10Buried Giant 4Buried Giant 5Some of you will have fine monuments by which the living may remember the evil done to you. Some of you will have only crude wooden crosses or painted rocks, while yet others of you must remain hidden in the shadows of history. You are in any case part of an ancient procession, and so it is always possible the giant’s cairn was erected to mark the site of some such tragedy long ago when young innocents were slaughtered in war.

Buried Giant 3

Buried Giant 6Buried Giant 8Buried Giant 9This aside, it is not easy to think of reasons for its standing.  One can see why on lower ground our ancestors might have wished to commemorate a victory or a king.  But why stack heavy stones to above a man’s height in so high and remote a place as this?

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant

Buried Giant 1
Buried Giant 2

 

 

Words: Kazuo Ishiguro

Images: Grimspound and Broad Barrow, Devon and Humbleton Hill Fort, Northumberland by Bobby Seal

 

 

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The Polish Embassy

It’s very easy to walk straight past the Polish Embassy in Wrexham without noticing it.  It’s a narrow, understated and not particularly distinguished building on the town’s High Street.  It also happens to be pub called the Royal Oak.

Polish Embassy 1

The earliest record of a pub by that name on this site dates from 1780, though the present building was completed in 1913 and replaced the original timber-framed structure.  In terms of architectural style I would describe it as Elizabethan-pastiche: pointed gable, leaded windows and a black and white-timbered façade.  The Royal Oak’s connection with Poland dates back to the Second World War.  Units of the Free Polish Army were stationed in the Wrexham area, and the pub became a favourite watering hole of the exiles.  Since that time it has been known locally as the Polish Embassy.

Polish Embassy 2

Polish Embassy 3

A number of Polish soldiers previously based in Wrexham expressed a reluctance to return their homeland after the war because of the Soviet occupation and many of them chose to settle in the area.  This population was added to in 1946 when the Polish Army Medical Corps, who were based in Italy, decided en masse that they did not wish to return to their native country.  Several hundred Polish service personnel and their families were, therefore, relocated to a former US Army hospital site at Penley, just outside Wrexham.

Before the Polish servicemen began to use the Royal Oak it was the haunt of American soldiers from the 33rd Signals Construction Battalion and 400th Armoured Field Artillery Battalion who were billeted at Acton Park.  The US Army, to its shame, was racially segregated at this time and the Royal Oak was one of the few Wrexham pubs African-American soldiers were free to attend.  The US Army left Wrexham in 1944 shortly after D-Day.  It was around this time that the Royal Oak’s connection with Wrexham’s Polish community began.

Polish War Memorial, Wrexham

Polish War Memorial, Wrexham

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Royal Oak today is a very pleasant pub with a jukebox, open fire, a host of CAMRA-approved real ales and, weirdly, an enormous stuffed antelope head on the chimney breast.

Polish Embassy 8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What there doesn’t seem to be, however, is any reminder of the pub’s once intimate connection with the town’s Polish population.  The Polish hospital at Penley no longer exists either having finally closed its doors in 2002.

Wrexham had a thriving Polish community throughout the 1950s and 1960s and the Royal Oak, by all accounts, maintained its Polish connection throughout this period.  In subsequent decades, however, Wrexham’s Polish community began to lose its unique identity as the wartime generation died off and their children and grandchildren were steadily assimilated into the local population.

Things changed, however, in 2004 when Poland and a number of other new countries acceded to the European Union.  Wrexham’s economy was booming during this time with an unemployment rate well below the UK average and a plethora of manufacturing jobs in the area.  As a result a steady stream of workers from Eastern Europe and Portugal were attracted to the town.  Wrexham’s Polish community has been rejuvenated and is estimated to form upwards of five per cent of the town’s population.

Wrexham now has several Polish supermarkets, most of the town’s pubs and off-licences stock Polish beers and the Polish language is now vying with Welsh and Portuguese to be the second most widely-spoken tongue in the area.

Polish Embassy 11

But, in concrete terms, there is very little to connect the current Polish community with the wartime generation.  On several visits to the Royal Oak, obviously just for the purposes of research, I never heard an Eastern European accent: the Polish Embassy is still waiting for a new generation to reclaim its heritage.

 

With full acknowledgement and grateful thanks to Zosia and Jurek Beigus’s excellent book Polish Resettlement Camps in England and Wales, 1946-1969 (2013)

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Permanence and Impermanence: Auggie’s Pictures

This gallery contains 2 photos.

They’re all the same, but each one is different from every other one.  You’ve got your bright mornings; your fog mornings; you’ve got your summer light and your autumn light; you’ve got your week days and your weekends; you’ve got … Continue reading

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The Fairy Mount

For in one sense Faerie represents a species of limbo, a great abyss of traditional material, into which every kind of ancient belief came to be cast as the acceptance of one new faith after another dictated the abandonment of forms and ideas unacceptable to its doctrines. The difference between god and fairy is indeed the difference between religion and folklore.

Lewis Spence, British Fairy Origins: The Genesis and Development of Fairy Legends in British Tradition (1946)

 

Poring over a reprint of a 1909 Ordnance Survey map of Wrexham I noticed something odd. On the corner of Belmont Road and Fairy Road, in an area close to the town centre, I noticed that a tumulus was marked in what appeared to be the garden of a large house at the point where the two roads meet. I know Fairy Road reasonably well; it’s a conservation area with some striking examples of Arts and Crafts architecture and was once home to the offices of the Football Association of Wales. But I’d never noticed a tumulus there before and, according to the 1909 map, it looked like quite a large one. Strangely though, I couldn’t find anything marked on the current OS Explorer map nor was there anything on Google or Open Street Map.

 

OS Map 1909

Tumulus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But the coincidence of the presence a prehistoric burial mound and the fact that the street is named Fairy Road intrigued me: what resonances of myth and memory had led to the area being given such a name? Having a free afternoon that day, I decided to take a little field trip. The first thing that strikes you about Fairy Road is the wealth of quirky Victorian architectural features, such as turrets, towers and curved walls, and the overall unity of the feel of the street that comes from the universal use of Ruabon red brick. The effect is spoiled, however, by the fact the street is part of Wrexham’s inner ring road and the noise and smell of traffic is ever-present.

Fairy Mount

Just past the corner with Belmont Road was something I hadn’t noticed before – a large detached house called Fairy Mount. The house sits behind a high wall of Ruabon brick on one side and a stone wall topped with a wooden fence on the other. Stretching to peer over the fence I saw that the house was set in extensive lawned grounds. I also saw that there, in the middle of the front garden, was a large grassy mound with the unmistakeable shape of a barrow. Sitting on top of the mound, like some strange obelisk, was the hollowed-out trunk of a dead tree. Leaning my camera on the fence I managed to fire off a couple of pictures.

Reading about Fairy Mount later, I learned that the house was built on a plot called Fairy Field and that the barrow was once topped by an oak tree. According to legend the fairy folk would dance around the mound on sacred occasions. It was excavated in 1882 prior to the construction of Fairy Mount and bones and pottery dating back to the Bronze Age were found. Unfortunately these remains have since disappeared.

Fairy hills feature prominently in Welsh and Irish folklore and tended to be regarded with a mixture of reverence and caution.  For the pre-Christian Celtic peoples a belief in the supernatural realm was an integral part of their world view, as was the existence of beings from this hidden world. In Scotland and Ireland these beings were known as the Aos Sí, which means the  Good People or Fair Folk.  To trespass onto their sacred places such as a fairy mount, known to them as a Sidhe, was to ask for trouble.

Of course we now know that such earthworks were constructed by our human ancestors more than two millennia ago. But even as I leaned on that wooden fence gazing across at the Fairy Mount with cars passing by behind me, I could still sense a certain ethereal beauty permeating this haven of earth, grass, trees and memory.

 

All images by the author other than:

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing – William Blake

Street view of Fairy Road  – Google Street View

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The Castle of the Raven King

‘Relic of Kings! Wreck of forgotten wars,

To winds abandoned and the prying stars.’

William Wordsworth, 1824

He keeps calling this a thin place which, to be honest, I find a little presumptuous. It’s true that a soon as we pass through the gate by the school and start to walk up the hill I find all sorts of thoughts and imaginings bubbling up to the surface, but is that really because of the place or is it just something I’m carrying inside me? Or maybe it was a book I read or something someone once told me?

You can see Dinas Brân from a long way down the valley: its conical hill dominates the view as you face upriver and the gnarled fingers of the castle’s outline seem to beckon and draw you in. I taught at the school at the foot of the castle hill once, just for the autumn term many years ago. Funnily enough, I never bothered to take the walk up to the ruined castle during that time, although I have done so several times since.

It’s a steep climb, the grass is slick with rainwater and the path a lumpy gruel of mud and small stones. Historians will tell you that they built the castle here because the hill provides a strong defensive position, but for me the choice of this site seems to be as much about asserting a claim to dominance: the hill isn’t just a point upon which to build a fortified position, but it is statement, a declaration of male dominance over the valley landscape and all who live within it. Thus the local lord was able to keep his own population in check and remind them who was in charge – Man dominating nature, or rather a handful of men dominating other men and women.

There’s a certain joy that comes from reaching the top of a hill and finding that there is no one else around when you get there, just my companion and me; and he seems to be more interested in checking the settings on his camera than in making idle conversation, which is good. I drink some water, not because I’m particularly thirsty but to disguise the fact that I’m out of breath and need to rest.

From the summit of the hill, standing amongst the castle ruins, you can see the River Dee below as it winds along the floor of the valley. I used to do a lot of wild swimming and I once swam in that stretch of water. It was quite a challenge to swim against the flow of the river just downstream of the town and it didn’t help to have so many crows constantly circling and swooping as I swam.

The name Dee is derived from the Brythonic word for goddess – the River of the Goddess. Castell Dinas Brân, I’m told, is variously translated as the Castle of the City of Crows, Crow’s Castle and Brân’s Fortress. Brân, of course, is the Raven King of Welsh mythology, hence my name for it: the Castle of the Raven King.

Most of the castles we now see in North Wales were built by the Normans to suppress the followers of the native Welsh princes; but Dinas Brân is different in that it pre-dates the invaders by at least a couple of centuries and was the stronghold of the princes of Powys Fadog. The site, however, was occupied long before that with evidence of Iron Age earthworks and ditches at several points on the summit.

Legend has it that Brân, the Raven King of Welsh mythology, had his head buried on Tower Hill in London after he was killed in battle. Brân, together with the ravens of the tower, then lived on as the symbolic protectors of the kingdom. King Arthur, the legend continues, had Bran’s head removed and re-buried at Dinas Brân where it remains until this day. Another Arthurian legend suggests that the Holy Grail is buried somewhere on the hill.

I don’t know the truth behind any of these stories, but I suppose that’s the whole point of mythology. This landscape certainly provides fertile ground for the weaving of legends: Dinas Brân’s imposing setting above the valley is reminiscent of something out of Tolkien and the facts of the castle’s earliest days are lost to recorded history, which leaves us with just the tales we read in the Mabinogion.

But I know this place, it lives in my dreams. I never dream about my time at the school, but the dark, glowering hill which looms above it frequently haunts my slumbering journeys. I am drawn to the sight of the jagged teeth of its wind-blown ramparts, and in my dream the crow flies and then everything makes perfect sense.

We are archaeologists of our own past lives, curious observers prodding away at the cooling embers of what we once experienced. All is cold and dusty, beyond any hope of responding to a despairing breath. It’s six years since I last swam in the River Dee, one day I will allow myself to think about why I stopped. We are creatures who look for patterns, trying to connect disparate elements, unwilling to accept the randomness of reality.

This is a guest post by Julie Baptiste. Any views expressed are entirely those of the author, Psychogeographic Review accepts no responsibility… ever.

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Psychogeographic Review’s Recommendations of the Year

Book Recommendations

cov_imaginary_hiresDarran Anderson – Imaginary Cities (2015)

Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities is a weighty, erudite book which propels the reader on an exhilarating journey through the history of the city in art, architecture and the human imagination. But, like some literary conjuror, Anderson has managed to produce a volume which wears its extensive and meticulous research lightly. He also places examples from popular culture, such as Judge Dredd and The Jetsons, alongside the more esoteric and academic. But why not? Anderson suggests that the buildings which did not get beyond the drawing board, those that remain within the realm of the imagination, are just as significant as those that were actually built: “The boundary between ‘real life’ architectural settings and fiction has been an intriguingly porous one.” After all, every structure, whether real or imagined, will eventually end up in the dustbin of history. Just one small carp, however: although the book is backed up by a slick website and lively Twitter account, it would have been nice to have included some pictures and an index.

exilesStuart Braun – City of Exiles (2015)

Stuart Braun’s book raises important questions concerning the influence of place on the human psyche and the nature of belonging. Berlin is, indeed, a city of exiles: from the Huguenots through to today’s Syrian refugees, outsiders have sought sanctuary in Berlin and each wave of exiles has left its mark upon the city. As Braun puts it:

Berlin is Berlin because of its strangers, its wanderers, its many displaced people who have come to build a kind of safe haven. These free-flowing exiles are the source of the freedom so many feel when they come to Berlin – they are the city’s substance in a sense.

51PZWznCa9L__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Iain Sinclair – London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line (2015)

These days Sinclair writes like a man aware that he is running out of time: words tumble out of him, one project after another, often over-lapping.  There is a palpable sense of urgency in his work: the flow of words accelerates just as the pace of his walks, the groundwork that is so essential to his style of writing, seems to have speeded up.  London Overground follows a typical Sinclair scenario, taking a walk along the route of London’s overground railway, the ‘ginger line’ of the title, and using it as a starting point for Sinclair’s peregrinatory riffs on writers, politics and urban life.  Yes, he’s done similar London walks before, but rarely with the pace and verve of this book in which he sets out to complete the entire journey in one day.  Sinclair’s companion on his walk, Boswell to his Samuel Johnson, is the film-maker Andrew Kötting, who brings a glowering physicality to Sinclair’s sensory meanderings.  But, as ever with Sinclair, the words, the ideas, memories and observations, tumble forth.

The LodgerLouisa Treger – The Lodger (2014)

While studying for her PhD thesis on Virginia Woolf Louisa Treger stumbled upon a review by Woolf of a writer whose name she did not recognise.  The review was of Revolving Lights, the seventh volume in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage sequence of novels.  Treger sought out Pilgrimage and was immediately riveted:

Who was Dorothy Richardson?  How had she come to re-invent the English language in order to record the experience of being uniquely female?

The Lodger, Treger’s first novel, tries to answer that question.  It is ‘a melding of fact and fiction’ exploring a critical period in the life of Dorothy Richardson.  She bases her story on the biographical facts of Richardson’s life, most of that life shadowed by Miriam Henderson, Richardson’s protagonist in Pilgrimage.

1783480858-230x345Tina Richardson – Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography (Place, Memory, Affect) (2015)

Tina Richardson is one of the key figures in contemporary British psychogeography and urban aesthetics. In this book she has brought together fourteen essays from a diverse range of urban walkers and writers. But this is not just a rag-bag collection of writings; Richardson’s own contributions give shape and form to the collection. For those of us interested in psychogeography she has provided a map of where we have come from and some pointers towards where we are going. More than anything else Walking Inside Out is a call to action:

Psychogeography does not have to be complicated. Anyone can do it. You do not need a map, Gore-Tex, rucksack, or companion. All you need is a curious nature and a comfortable pair of shoes. There are no rules to doing psychogeography – this is its beauty.

pond-by-claire-louise-bennettClaire-Louise Bennett – Pond (2015)

I first encountered Claire-Louise Bennett in the pages of gorse magazine and ever since I have looked forward to reading this, her debut collection of stories. The wait was worthwhile: Pond is a book that lives on in one’s imagination long after one has finished reading it. It is a collection of stories presented to the reader by an unnamed female narrator, but Bennett pushes the short story form to its absolute limits. In doing so she has achieved a work of profound and unsettling beauty:

Still, as I’ve said, none of this has anything to do with now whatsoever. I don’t know what it has to do with and as a matter of a fact I’m not sure what now is about either.

Music Recommendations

Sub_Lingual_1432561368_crop_560x583_0Sub-Lingual Tablet – The Fall (2015)

This is The Fall’s thirty-first album and is something of a return to form. Mark E Smith is at his irascible, snarling best and the band operates as a tight, punchy unit filling in the aural spectrum and leaving Smith’s voice free to wander in and out of his songs as only he can. Smith’s lyrics are totally unique and his subject matter is consistently idiosyncratic. Take Venice With The Girls, for instance:

 

Long nights in Brit-land
Olderness, his skin, whose is it
Too beautiful
Best thing, best thing for to do is hide

InstrumentalsInstrumentals – Flying Saucer Attack (2015)

No lyrics, no song titles, no ‘songs’ to speak of.  Nothing, in fact, to get in the way of David Pearce’s sonic wash of guitars, tapes and ambient effects.  As the first FSA album in 15 years Instrumentals feels like something of a place-holder, but a very enjoyable one for all that.

 

 

a yearIn Every Mind – A Year in the Country (2015)

“This is the first audiological research and pathways case study constructed solely by A Year In The Country.  In contrast to the telling of tales from the wald/wild wood in times gone by, today the stories that have become our cultural folklore we discover, treasure, pass down, are informed and inspired by, are often those that are transmitted into the world via the airwaves, the (once) cathode ray machine in the corner of the room, the zeros and ones that flitter around the world and the flickers of (once) celluloid tales.  They take root in our minds and imagination via the darkened rooms of modern-day reverie, partaken of in communal or solitary séance.”

tumblr_nkoohysQDk1qf9i0do1_500Surface Tension – Rob St John (2015)

Sometimes with a project of this ambition it seems the initial concept overshadows the final creative achievement.  Thankfully this is not the case with this, Rob St John’s sublime multi-modal work.  As he describes it: “Surface Tension is a project I have been working on since last summer, exploring the River Lea in East London through sound, writing and photography.  Commissioned by the Thames21 charity’s ‘Love the Lea’ campaign, Surface Tension uses field recordings, tape loops, analogue synth, 120 and pinhole film photography to creatively interpret water pollution.”

homepage_large_58863bf2Alasdair Roberts – ‘Alasdair Roberts’ (2015)

Incredibly, this is Scottish singer/songwriter/guitarist Alasdair Roberts’s eighth solo album.  He’s also done any number of collaborations too; he’s clearly a hard-working performer, though he’s yet to do a gig in my part of the world.  Many of Roberts’s previous works have included traditional folk songs but this is an album of his own material.  It is a very satisfying and mellow collection with sparse acoustic arrangements and deeply personal lyrics, though Roberts mischievously wanted to know how I knew they were so personal when I first reviewed this album earlier in the year.

jo%20johnson-525x525Weaving – Jo Johnson (2014)

Jo Johnson has a background in punk and techno music and this is her first solo album.  It’s quite a departure from her previous work – five slices of ambient sounds and minimalist repetitions.  But it’s the attention to detail and the technical accomplishment of these ethereal soundscapes that really appeals.  That and track titles like In the Shadow of the Workhouse, which somehow puts me in mind of the opening of George Gissing’s novel The Nether World.

Film Recommendations

ttSunset Song – Terence Davies (2015)

Sunset Song is Terence Davies’s first feature film release in over four years and is based on Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 book of the same name. Set in a bleak rural community in north-east Scotland on the eve of the First World War, Sunset Song’s connections with Davies’s previous work may not be immediately apparent. However, Davies was clearly drawn to Gibbon’s themes of marital abuse, death and thwarted ambition; personal and universal wounds he had previously picked over in his Trilogy. But there is beauty in this film: Davies’s cinematography is sumptuous, his use of music is inspired and, in Agyness Deyn in the lead role, he has discovered an exciting new talent.

image004The Falling – Carol Morley (2014)

The Falling is Carol Morley’s study of friendship, sexuality and mass hysteria at a girls’ school in the 1960s.  She creates a satisfying mix of uncomfortable psychological insights and black humour seasoned with a hint of the uncanny.

 

vrodKSbA Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence – Roy Andersson (2014)

Roy Andersson’s latest film takes us through a series of episodes of existential pondering.  He reaches for truth by deliberately avoiding any hint of superficial reality:  his interiors appear to be constructed from balsa-wood, he has a colour palette that is largely restricted to a washed-out shade of green and his actors all wear corpse-like pale makeup.  Yet this is a genuinely funny and profound film; rather like Alexei Sayle  channelling Samuel Beckett.

CMD-Final-QuadCatch Me Daddy – Daniel Wolfe (2014)

Laila and Aaron are a young couple, one Asian the other white, who seek quiet anonymity in a caravan on the Yorkshire moors.  But Laila’s brother has other ideas.  The script by Daniel and Matthew Wolfe is acid sharp and Robbie Ryan’s camera evokes a landscape tinged with an eerie beauty.

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Space, Shadow and Light: The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer

Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry.  (Carl Theodor Dreyer)

Carl Theodor Dreyer (3 February 1889 – 20 March 1968) was a Danish film-maker best known for his works The Bride of Glomdal (1926), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955), and Gertrud (1964).  His films are characterised by their mediated psychological power, naturalism and his use of space, shadow and light.  Dreyer displays a sensitivity for landscape, be it the wind-swept heathlands of his native Denmark or the forests of Norway.  He treats his indoor sets as landscapes too: the backgrounds of his interiors are a projection of the dramatic action and not just a backdrop to it. 

There is a certain resemblance between a work of art and a person. Just as one can talk about a person’s soul, one can also talk about the work of art’s soul, its personality.  The soul is shown through the style, which is the artist’s way of giving expression to his perception of the material. The style is important in attaching inspiration to artistic form. Through the style, the artist moulds the many details that make it whole. Through style, he gets others to see the material through his eyes.  Style is not something that can be separated from the finished work of art. It saturates and penetrates it, and yet is invisible and undemonstrable.  All art is a single person’s work. But a film is created by a collectivity, and a collectivity cannot create art unless an artistic personality stands behind it and acts as its driving force.  The first creating impulse for a film comes from the writer whose work is the actual foundation for the film. But from the moment the poetic foundation is laid, it is the director’s task to give the film its style. The many artistic details are born through his initiative. It ought to be his feelings and moods that colour the film and that awaken corresponding feelings and moods in the spectator’s mind. Through the style he infuses the work with a soul–and that is what makes it art. It is for him to give the film a face–namely his own.  The picture has a very great effect upon the spectator’s state of mind. If it is kept in light tones, then it tunes the mind in a light way. If it is kept in dark, subdued tones, then it tunes the mind to seriousness. As was suitable to the time and the action in Day of Wrath, my photographer and I agreed to have the pictures veiled in soft grey and black tones.  The eye prefers order, and therefore it is of importance that the picture effects are harmonious and remain so even in movement. Ungraceful lines push the spectator’s eye.  The eye absorbs horizontal lines rapidly and easily but repels vertical lines. The eye is involuntarily attracted by objects in motion but remains passive over stationary things. This is the explanation why the eye, with pleasure, follows gliding camera movements, preferably when they are soft and rhythmic. As a principle rule, one can say that one shall try to keep a continuous, flowing, horizontally gliding motion in the film. If one then suddenly introduces vertical lines, one can reach an instantly dramatic effect––as, for instance, in the pictures of the vertical ladder just before it is thrown into the fire in Day of Wrath.  (Carl Theodor Dreyer in Torben Skjødt Jensen’s My Métier , 1995)

Although Dreyer works in a field which has become inextricably associated with artificiality, trickery, and commercialized hoopla, his films have the personal, almost austere cohesion and integrity which mark them as the expressions of a single, quite extraordinary personality. There is in French the word cinéaste, which. has no equivalent in English and is applied to anyone who works, in any capacity, in the film medium; Dreyer, by his ubiquitous interest and direction, is the apotheosis of the cineaste.  (Paul Moor, The Tyrannical Dane, Theatre Arts Magazine, April 1951) 

Dreyer’s pared-down style takes him beyond surface realism to something more mysterious and abstract: sounds or shadows (as in the truly eerie Vampyr) evoke the presence of unseen beings, landscape and architecture are invested, by lighting, design and composition, with supernatural force. Paradoxically, by rejecting anything superfluous to his purposes, this undisputed master of the cinema created some of its richest, most affecting and wondrously beautiful studies of the human condition. (Geoff Andrew, The Director’s Vision, 1999)

Dreyer’s work is always based on the beauty of the image, which in turn is a record of the luminous conviction and independence of human beings. His films are devoted principally to human emotions, and if they seem relatively subdued, then that may be a proper reason for calling in Danishness. But simplicity and purity of style do not argue against intensity, Dreyer’s greatness is in the way that he makes a tranquil picture of overwhelming feelings. His art, and his intelligence, make passion orderly without ever cheating on it. (David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)

Although he was sometimes austere and ponderous, Dreyer’s vision and drive for perfection made him the greatest director Denmark has ever produced. Unfortunately, the commercial failure of most of his films and his own perfectionism meant that his output was extremely limited… Dreyer was a film-maker before his time, even if his habit of using amateur players on occasions could work against his films. Nowadays he would find the world’s film climate much more to his liking and would no doubt be allowed the artistic and financial freedom he always desired.  (David Quinlan, Quinlan’s Film Directors, 1999)

Though his work is associated with emotional austerity and slow, stately pacing, Carl Theodor Dreyer made films that glisten with blood, sweat and tears; the Scandinavian winter wind may forever howl outside the door, but inside it’s a hothouse of conflicting desires and orthodoxies.   (Jessica Winter, The Rough Guide to Film, 2007)

Dreyer’s silent pictures are remarkable for their mastery of decor, lighting, camera movement, and editing.  Concentrate on the way he constructs the space of an interior or orchestrates a sensual camera movement that he invented himself – the camera gliding on unseen tracks in one direction while uncannily panning in another direction – and you perceive how each Dreyer film almost brutally reconstructs the universe rather than accepting it as a familiar given. Nothing can be taken for granted in these works – except their passion.   (Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Guardian, 2003)

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The City of Dreadful Night

James Thomson was a Scottish-born poet, atheist and anarchist. He struggled with depression, insomnia and alcohol-abuse throughout his short life and his work frequently reflected the bleakness and despair of his life’s experiences. Thomson wrote The Doom of the City in 1857 and his best known poem, The City of Dreadful Night in 1874.

The City of Dreadful Night James Thomson Book Cover

Raymond Williams calls The City of Dreadful Night: ‘a symbolic vision of the city as a condition of human life’. Williams asserts that, by the Victorian-era, the city had become a new form of human consciousness. The city of Thomson’s poem is clearly an imagined London. But it is not the dynamic hub of Empire of the popular imagination: for him it is a city of death in life.  A place permeated by loss of belief, loss of purpose and loss of hope.

The City is of Night, but not of but not of Sleep;

There sweet sleep is not for the weary brain;

The pitiless hours like years and ages creep,

A night seems termless hell. This dreadful strain

Of thought and consciousness which never ceases,

Or which some moments’ stupor but increases,

This, worse than woe, makes wretches there insane.

City of Dreadful Night Gustave Doré 1

The City of Dreadful Night takes the form of the poet’s journey through one night in the city and suggests a reworking of Dante’s Inferno. In terms of atmosphere it can be viewed as part of the Gothic tradition, but the setting is a supposedly modern city. The poem’s structure is interesting – it alternates odd-numbered seven-line sections giving description with even-numbered six-line sections giving narrative. This very mechanical structure seems to suggest an inhuman, mechanical world. A world where its inhabitants merely follow their allocated roles within a continually-running machine:

They are most rational and yet insane:

And outward madness not to be controlled;

A perfect reason in the central brain,

Which has no power, but sitteth wan and cold,

And sees the madness, and foresees as plainly

The ruin in its path, and trieth vainly

To cheat itself refusing to behold.

City of Dreadful Night Gustave Doré 2

Thomson’s narrator is an alienated wanderer, a joyless flâneur. As he walks he encounters other aimless wanderers, in fact the city teems with people: it is a haunted space. But the wanderers walk, not to arrive, not to satisfy any purpose, but to make a kind of penance to the silent, impersonal ‘necessity supreme’ that permeates the entire city:

There is no God; no fiend with names divine

Made us and tortures us; if we must pine,

It is to satiate no Being’s gall.

In Thomson’s eyes the hopes and everyday concerns of the inhabitants of the ‘real’ London are just daydreams; eventually they will awake from what they think is reality and embrace ‘this real night’. In Masao Miyoshi’s words: ‘the desolation of the decomposing self permeates the dreadful night of his vision’.

City of Dreadful Night Gustave Doré 4

For the poet wandering the city streets there is no alternative vision and no contrast to the unremitting gloom, as a result of which there is a complete absence of any hope. Even in that other nightmare vision of the modern city, Eliot’s The Waste Land, there is the hint of some hope, but here there is none.

Wherever men are gathered, all the air

Is charged with human feeling, human thought;

Each shout and cry and laugh, each curse and prayer,

Are into its vibrations surely wrought;

Unspoken passion, wordless meditation,

Are breathed into it with our respiration

It is with our life fraught and overfraught.

 

So that no man there breathes earth’s simple breath,

As if alone on mountains or wide seas;

But nourishes warm life or hastens death

With joys and sorrows, health and foul disease,

Wisdom and folly, good and evil labours,

Incessant of his multitudinous neighbours;

He in his turn affecting all of these.

Strange, dark images fill the lines of Thomson’s poem, a vision almost modernist in its self-conscious power and summoning up images of a type echoed many years later in Eliot’s work:

That City’s atmosphere is dark and dense,

Although not many exiles wander there,

With many a potent evil influence,

Each adding poison to the poisoned air;

Infections of unutterable sadness,

Infections of incalculable madness,

Infections of incurable despair.

City of Dreadful Night Gustave Doré 3

 

Thomson, in his The City of Dreadful Night, characterises the city as a place of loneliness, alienation and spiritual despair for the many, which contrasts with the political and economic confidence enjoyed by the few. London in the nineteenth-century had seen an explosion in the size of its population and a proliferation of its downtrodden underclass. George Gissing wrote about this human underbelly of the city in his The Nether World:

Pass by in the night, and strain imagination to picture the weltering mass of human weariness, of bestiality, of unmerited dolour, of hopeless hope, of crushed surrender, tumbled together within those forbidding walls.

The French artist Gustave Doré, together with his journalist colleague Blanchard Jerrold, spent three months wandering the grittier streets of London in 1872, just before The City of Dreadful Night was published. As a result of their investigations they published London, A Pilgrimage to highlight the experience of London’s poor, or what Jerrold called ‘that long disease, their life’. Doré and Thomson never collaborated, but the artist’s illustrations make a fitting accompaniment to Thomson’s poem.

 

James Thomson, The City of Dreadful Night (1874)

Gustave Doré and  Blanchard Jerrold, London, A Pilgrimage (1872)

Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (1973)

Masao Miyoshi, The Divided Self (1969)

George Gissing, The Nether World (1889)

Jane Desmarais, Review of James Thomson, City of Dreadful Night, Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 2 Number 1 (March 2004)

Sally Ledger and Scott McCracken (Eds.) Cultural Politics at the Fin de Siecle (1995)

 

All Gustave Doré images used in this piece are now in the public domain.

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There’s a Thousand Things I Want to Say to You: The City, Modernism and the Flâneuse

 

The passing of the historical figure paved the way for the resurrection of the flâneur as a methodological persona, adopted in order to pursue the exploration of the city. Stripped to its basic characteristics and used as a modus operandi for the writer, flânerie, as a scopic methodology, involves mobile observation on the part of an individual consciousness from the supposed viewpoint of a pedestrian city dweller.[i]

Modernism is very much an urban phenomenon. Whilst writers of previous generations, such as Dickens, Gissing and Wells, wrote about the city, it was the early modernist writers, most notably Woolf, Joyce and Richardson, who developed new ways to represent the psychological impact of urban life. The early twentieth-century saw an explosion of new freedoms for women, and middle-class women, many of them newly empowered into roles in academia and the professions, together with an expanded role as consumers, became more evident on the city streets. Women writers, Mansfield, Richardson and Woolf in particular, began to write about the new types of women that they saw about them. These, and other, modernist writers stretched the boundaries of narrative form and used fiction not so much to tell a ‘story’, but to explore the very nature of consciousness. In the case of Richardson and Woolf, this was, in essence, an examination of the nature of female consciousness.

Gustave_Caillebotte_-_Paris_Street;_Rainy_Day_-_Google_Art_Project

Several of Woolf’s novels, most notably Mrs Dalloway, are set in London and seven volumes of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series of novels are set in and around the streets of Bloomsbury. In Pilgrimage, Miriam Henderson’s exploration of London’s streets develops in parallel with her journey into her own consciousness. She finds certain streets to be ‘haunted’ (a word later picked up by Woolf[ii] in one of her short stories) and representing, for Richardson, the power of certain locations to stir up powerful emotions within one.

richardson-pilgrimage

Since its first use by Baudelaire in the nineteenth-century, the flâneur has proved to be a useful device for writers to employ in their explorations of the modern city. Walter Benjamin conducted a systematic review of the world that Baudelaire had created and set it within a framework of literary, sociological and historical theory. His flâneur was an idle stroller with an inquisitive mind and an aesthetic eye; a solitary figure, he avoided serious political and personal relationships, preferring to enjoy the aesthetics of city life; its material artefacts and human archetypes. The flâneur reads the city and finds beauty in liminal spaces and discarded objects.

The city, though, has traditionally been a male place, with women in a subservient role, or at best at the margins, and this gender bias was reflected in the writing of that period. Benjamin’s work too was notable for the absence of women’s experiences. Some critics, such as Griselda Pollock and Janet Wolff, take a very negative view of this, suggesting the impossibility of there being a true flâneuse. Others, most notably Deborah Parsons and Anne Friedberg, take a more positive view, whilst accepting that there are limitations to Benjamin’s analysis.

Conducting a feminist reading of The Arcades Project, Deborah Parsons emphasises the strengths as well as the limitations and posits a different perspective on Benjamin’s analysis of urban modernism:

Janet Wolff, Griselda Pollock and Elizabeth Wilson all base their discussion of the flâneur within Benjamin’s definition, and have been influential in composing the conceptual categories of male and the male artistic ‘gaze’ that literary and art criticism now employ. Indeed their work has been crucial for encouraging the recognition of the masculine bias of hegemonic modernism, and the subtle techniques and styles women artists used to assert their differing perspectives on the urban experience.[iii]

Flânerie is a method of exploring a modern world that has become incomprehensible. The ‘shock’ of the modern city creates anxiety in the individual, pushing him or her to seek refuge in fantasy. Fairs, photography, cinema, festivals, world exhibitions and big department stores give the bourgeois individual a chance to enjoy a voyeuristic world. Anne Friedberg suggests that the department stores were a starting point for the flâneuse’s existence, but concedes this form of flânerie was tainted by consumerism. The key concept for flânerie, Friedberg insists, is an aesthetic distance towards the object of attention, and the new-born department store flâneuse seems to lack that characteristic. Benjamin, on the other hand, suggests that the department store opens up new possibilities for the flâneur:

The crowd is the veil through which the familiar city beckons to the flâneur as phantasmagoria – now a landscape, now a room. Both become elements of the department store, which makes use of flânerie itself to sell goods. The department store is the last promenade for the flâneur.[iv]

Benjamin was bound by the literary canon of the period he wrote about and very few of his flâneur characters were female. It was only with such works as Mrs Dalloway and Pilgrimage that one can see a female equivalent of the flâneur, the flâneuse, emerge. But ultimately, the flâneuse is journeying not just through the streets of the city, but through an exploration of her own human consciousness:

Miriam’s consciousness is the subject matter of this novel. And it seems to her that the experiences and perceptions of women have been brutally and unreasonably discounted by men. Nor has she any mercy for the majority of women who have, in her judgement, colluded with men in the suborning of their female gifts and attributes. [v]

In Miriam Henderson, Richardson presents us with a character who lives and breathes flânerie. A character who inhabits the streets and weaves her observations and impressions into her own psyche. Virginia Woolf too creates characters who consciously map out the streets of London and impose upon them psychological journeys of their own. Clarissa Dalloway ponders upon the impact of aging and recalls some of her life’s turning points and lost opportunities as she wanders through the streets of central London; and all about her she sees reminders of the cataclysmic war Europe had so recently endured. While in Street Haunting: A London Adventure, the narrator weaves the sights of urban life that catch her eye as she walks through the West End into a series of speculative vignettes.

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But modernist writers were not just interested in the written word: Richardson wrote extensively about the cinema and Woolf had a passion for photography. Both seemed to sense, though not necessarily at a conscious level, a connection between female consciousness, the practice of flânerie and the roving eye of the photographic lens.

Although working-class women had always been free to travel through the city streets, if going about their allotted business, women in general had only started to be free to do so in the early twentieth-century; and even then they had to be careful to avoid drawing unwanted male attention and to avoid acting in such a way that would lead to accusations of being a prostitute: quite literally, a streetwalker.

One key differentiation of the fiction of Richardson and Woolf from that of earlier women writers was the fact that so many of the latter’s female characters are presented to the reader as habitués of the streets of the metropolis. This subtle change in the world their characters inhabit reflects the changes that female modernists saw going on around them. The importance of the flâneuse to modernist writing, in particular the work of female modernists, is much more than the creation of a different type of character inhabiting a different setting; the flâneuse provides Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf with a potent tool with which to expand the boundaries of our understanding of female consciousness. The flâneuse is, thus, not simply a female version of the flâneur, but she embodies a different subjectivity and a form of consciousness that is not the same as that of the flâneur. Richardson and Woolf both created female characters who were not content to simply conform to the Baudelarian stereotype of the prostitute or the ragpicker, but who instead demonstrated a new form of urban female mobility. Both Miriam Henderson and Clarissa Dalloway should be viewed as representations of the newly emerging flâneuse; an expression of both socio-economic change and of new forms of literary expression.

In the city there’s a thousand things I want to say to you
But whenever I approach you, you make me look a fool
I wanna say, I wanna tell you
About the young ideas
But you turn them into fears.[vi]


[i] Paul Castro, ‘Flânerie and Writing the City in Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory, Edmund White’s The Flâneur, and José Cardoso Pires’s Lisboa: Livro de Bordo’, Darwin College Research Report, Cambridge (October 2003) p. 6

[ii] Street Haunting: A London Adventure in Virginia Woolf, Selected Essays (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009)

[iii] Deborah Parsons, Streetwalking the Metropolis: Women, the City and Modernity (Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 2000) p.39

[iv] Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire (Cambridge, Mass and London, Belknap Harvard, 2006) p. 40

[v] Gillian Hanscombe, Introduction to: Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage:1 (London, Virago, 1992) p. 5

[vi] The Jam, In The City (Paul John Weller, 1977)

 

The image Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877) by Gustave Caillebotte is in the public domain

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City of Exiles by Stuart Braun

The first time I visited Berlin was in the spring of 1989. Falling into conversation with a Berliner on a bus one day I asked him if he thought the Wall would ever be taken down. Of course it would, he replied, though not in the lifetime of any of us. But by November of that year, as we all now know, the Berlin Wall was breached and the process of removing it had begun. Perhaps we should have been prepared for Berlin to surprise us. Stuart Braun seems to agree, and City of Exiles (Noctua Press) is his explanation why.

exiles

Transformation, Braun argues, is embedded into the very bedrock of Berlin. He notes the German writer Karl Scheffler asserted as long ago as 1910 that: ‘Berlin is a city condemned forever to becoming and never to being.’ Thus, concludes Braun, the Wall was fated to fall:

For me, however, Berlin felt so intrinsically free that the Wall seemed like an aberration. Its fall was less about struggle than inevitability.’

Go to minor literature[s] to read the rest of this review.

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