Thursday, 28 February 2008

One day...

... I will have a rollercoaster wrapped round my house. Actually maybe I'd rather have a helter skelter round a tree with a house at the top with its own chair lift to the rest of my treehouse village. And a monorail. But this castle will do for a start - it's from 1895...

Crystal Palace for William

There was a palace here once. They say it was made of crystal. I still think of how it might have shone out over the city and let the whole sky be lighter. Cleared the blackened buildings with light not soapy water. Nothing could be more powerful at cleaning than light. I wonder if the bricks were tinted with sunshine those years. The palace didn’t last long. Burned to the ground. Must have got too hot in all that sunshine. It slipped down the road like a volcano made of molten glass. Not the ones that explode but just melting to the ground, it oozed glitter. Can’t have been big enough to cause that much damage, but I like the idea that the city could have been wiped out by light, have made its own Pompeii out of glass and sunshine.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Extracts from "We lay here slowly sinking."

One day I got stuck. We were not that far from the village. There was a small wood that though only a few metres wide always felt like it was deep and dense. I felt a bit different here. That everything was not quite so easy. You went on ahead when I decided to climb higher. The tree was tall and wide with a hole that took up most of its middle. I crawled inside and sat still for a while looking out – I couldn’t really see around me as the bark was too dark and tight. I was quite happy hidden here, when I realised that things were watching me – small things lower than my level. I pushed my elbows to the side and scrambled upwards, but this hollow was higher than I thought. When my head poked out the top I could see the canopy of other trees and not where you had gone here. I called out and watched my voice trickle on a breeze caught up with dust and leaves. A few birds turned round, but though they soon flew off, I knew they weren’t taking my message to you. That would be ridiculous.
I waited all day for you to find me. Knew you wouldn’t leave me there. It was well into the dark time when I heard a soft noise and felt something pulling at my legs. I started thinking that it was probably a fox or badger nibbling away in the night. But it was a firm hand that grabbed my ankle – my arms shot upwards as I scraped down the splintered tunnel – felt my dress slip away – left it behind above my stretched out fingertips. You smiled as you saw me there, bleeding in my bra and full of small bits of wood. We stopped a while as you picked some of them out. Swung up the outside to fetch my vacant frock. Dad was furious, but no one would have guessed how things happened by the way I looked that night, slightly gleaming with my hair messed up. It was tender.


I saw you coming towards me and ran as fast as I could. When I landed on your chest I’d jumped a good five feet. You looked up slightly puzzled as I’d floored you. And as you held my eyes I pushed your hair back into the mud and kissed you quite a lot. It was for a long time that we lay here slowly sinking.
The wind stirred up and though there had been sun, it was leaves not rays of light that fell upon us. The warmth they gave was good though – softly knitted themselves together stuck down with dirt and water. I couldn’t wrap this round me, but as we moved or lay still, it did so with us. Stopped us getting cold. And if things landed on my back, beetles or pieces of wood, they did not feel heavy. All was light when we got entrenched in the ground. Felt like I was floating though my arms were wrapped around you. I hugged you ‘til we almost flew away.
It didn’t always happen like this. Sometimes you would find me. I’d be walking along a path and feel my feet slide under as you rugby tackled me. Scrambled forward with my arms ‘til I realised it must be you and turned my head, slightly smiling. You would kiss my cheek, and I would feel your hair stroke down my neck as your hands pushed me further. It always seemed like we were going further into the ground. That somehow it was part of us. I remember coming home and my little brother asking questions about how I’d got in such a state, while my parents ignored the fact or gave him a harsh look. I never tried to cover it up. I mean at first I didn’t notice what I looked like, then after a while, when I had, and guessed it probably looked like I’d been dragged through hedges, well then I liked to leave it. Felt like you were still with me in bits and pieces.


You liked to bring me things. They were hidden in your pockets – you were never too keen to have things on show. And sometimes I would only catch them for a little while – these gifts would fall from your fingertips like a dandelion feather – blow away from me as I kept missing them. I dived on the ground once for a small piece of paper – it was shaped like a house, and the rooms were cut out in silver and lines of pencil. I held it up against the sky and the trees in the distance – wanted to see where it fitted best. Would put it in my pocket knowing that view would be where it would end up, where, later, when I was washing up or sitting in my room, it would really be, outlined against the countryside.
This was one of the presents I could save. Others burst into flames before they could reach me. You liked to do that – wave them before my eyes before setting them ablaze with your lighter. I tried to guess what they’d been by the colours of their sparks. I don’t know what you added but green usually meant an animal, blue an object I could have held longer.
I kept them in a shoebox. The presents I rescued and bits of ash from the others. If I lift the lid off I can still hear the spluttering as they come to life. The sparks struggle to light up, but slowly things move apart and I can see how they all lined up in our landscape. Which hedge a paper bird rested on, or where in the river the swan used to swim. And somewhere, amongst trees and dampened sunshine, there is always the little house. Standing there, against my now rural bedroom wall. And I wonder if that’s where you are these days, whether that’s why I can never find you. That you haven’t gone away. Just stayed in the same place. It’s harder to get back to the same place sometimes. Places where stuff got left behind. You are in miniature amongst my paper views and blu-tac stains – stuck behind some green chipped paint.

I began to build places for you in return for these gifts. It seemed like something I’d be good at and the places I had found when roaming inspired me. You’d got a bit fed up with us nearly getting seen by people, and I thought that a den could hide us. I missed childhood den making too – the places created under sheets and chairs in the sitting room that could somehow feel like a whole new grown-up world. These were good places. I carried bundles of sticks a day ahead of you. Guessed where you might lead me next and quickly wove them into low branches or a muddy bank. It was good too you know, as I could leave supplies for us – a thermos of coffee or a couple of blankets, they’d sometimes go missing but it was worth the risk. It was easy to forget to keep warm, or that we weren’t as warm as we felt we were.
Sometimes I would wait. Come to the dens alone. I hung things from the trees. Bits of shiny paper and a triangle I’d once nicked from the school music box. There was a robin who I swear followed me for all the times he appeared to perch on it and swing in silver, or stay nearby and tap it with his beak ‘til it rang out. He almost looked as if he were posing.
I drew maps on the ground. Put a coin on the places we hid out – marked our treasure. I didn’t really think about how if someone were there reading the map, then I guess they would have already had to have found our dens. But there were other places. I’d built a kind of kingdom, and from my scribbles in the earth it was possible to work out more or less how it all fitted together.
They were mostly close together these dens. They were almost like small houses as they had roofs and doors. I spent many hours in them when you were not there. I don’t know what I was preparing for, but I felt that if I showed you them they would fall apart. Maybe you would get excited and trample them down, or just not like them – laugh at what I’d been working on for weeks now.
Although they were deep in the landscape we’d written ourselves, they seemed like mine. You did not belong in them. The objects I lay out in preparation for you lay unused. It was like they represented you – where you would have sat and what you would have done if you had been there. And they didn’t shout like you sometimes did. Maybe whispered occasionally, but mostly they just listened. Stayed still. You were everywhere but here in this landscape.
I wandered between these dens – sometimes visited more than one in a trip – did a quick tour, but they were often far apart and I liked to take my time – lie down and fall asleep looking at their wooded ceilings. One was quite near a road. It seemed silly to build one so close to noise and possible people, but when I stumbled through the gap in the hedge to this spot, there was nothing else I could do. I hardly had to build it at all as it sunk slightly into a wooded hillside and leaves fell down on drooped branches like a bead curtain. I’d always wanted one of those.
I was sat here reading a book and occasionally looking out once, when I heard a bike. This would have been normal but for the clatter and screech which I knew could only mean it was you. You used to tie tin cans to the back wheel – pull them up on your lap when you wanted a smooth journey, then, when you got bored, just let go – took your hands off the handlebars and lifted your feet over them. You grinned into the wind as they clattered in streamers of noise behind you.
I don’t think you could have known I was there, you never noticed other people if you were making noise and you liked to ride on your own. I had spied you once or twice riding round the car park by the old factory, or down a lane late on a Monday. It was like you’d found your own mobile disco as the cans danced in off beats around you. You never told me about these trips – your musical experiments. I wasn’t supposed to know about anything that happened to you when you were not with me. I wondered what would happen if you always were.

When you came round next I had seen you on the street two days before. The noises you made had got louder. Drums banged when I saw you there with your feet close to some bins – you liked to take the lids off – get someone to clash them together while you took a run up to kick the rest; stole steel crescendos that should have fallen dead like tin. Nothing could dampen you when you were like this. You strutted and shouted and your face was taken up with smiles. Couldn’t see anything but your pleasure swirling. You snatched out frustration ‘til it twirled and giggled into a new stave of bolts and thunder. The sky shuddered around you.
I walked past slowly. You should have seen me, yet I wanted you not to. Would have interrupted everyone and made me realise how I made things quiet. That if I opened my mouth it would be as if in a whisper – that would crawl out, move forward lethargically before falling. Thud. It was sods law it could only be loud as it slumped to the ground. Made a strange noise for you all to laugh at. You just liked to hear strange noises – would record them on your tape player to show me later. They sounded a little better when they made music.
I turned around when you were probably out of sight. Could see some movement but not what you did with it. Just the aftermath. The old ladies that walked up the road cursing what you found to do with your time. Had too much of it apparently. They’d had too little. Dogs didn’t like you either – got over excited then ran away. Squirrels sat and watched in the trees.


We practised stuff on each other. Raced downhill on our bikes or timed how long we could hold our breath; sometimes underwater, but that was especially hard and quite cold too. I didn’t always like getting wet. You were good at making catapults and bows and arrows. I don’t know whether you showed your friends this, as I guess they would have seen it as kind of immature – a relic from the childhoods they all pretended they’d never had. But I thought it was cool that you could do these things – I watched as bits of paper and stone were flung through the air – I didn’t look at where you were aiming, but at the motion that got them there. You loosened your body once you’d let go, spun slightly as your arm went limp and you jumped back a couple of times and smiled round at me. That’s the bit I liked best – I had no idea where anything landed.
I would bury my head in your tummy. Lift up your t-shirt and just stand there for a while with my cheek against your skin. It was soft and smelt warm. Of incense and the strange washing powder your mum must have used – it never varied – your clothes always smelled the same, almost too clean. I thought it funny that there were no traces of how you spent your days. How you could go home and no matter what the marks, if she took your clothes from you, then they would still smell as she had left them. I wonder if there was a comfort in this. That you were not growing up before her. Just staying the same in slightly larger sizes.
I slipped my arms around your waist and let my lips brush past, rest above the belt-loops of your jeans. My back started to ache from bending forward and I could feel you laughing – wondered what I was doing. Let me stay there quite a while, ‘til you realised I was just resting and pulled my head up. Grabbed it and pushed it against yours. You took your turn then. I felt you go under but you did not stay still as I had – you moved around and my skin prickled with hot breath – nipped a little as you caught it with the side of your teeth. I felt myself fall back to the ground – a sharp chill as you went further and my skin was let out to fresh air. And my eyes closed and I saw colours that danced like strange flames. I had not realised where you were going. Blew up into a fire storm and then the flames had gone. I was shaking in the damp leaves when I saw your face come up for me again. You tasted different, and held me. I rose a little quivering. You walked me to my door that night. Held me with your arms. I was dizzy ‘til morning.

Poem when I was 23...


I fell off the ceiling when I first saw you.
Been up there somewhere, collecting cobwebs - making patterns
in their sticky snow.
And you almost caught me.
I think I felt your fingers
brush the t-shirt that hung around my neck
by old pearls.
They broke when I landed. Scattered
on the stone and woven thread.
I looked up and you were almost there.
Held my gaze with the turn of
your head as you walked past the wall
I lay by.

I stayed for a while.
Thought you'd come back and pull me
up with hands.
Did it myself, by and by.
Still smiling. Smiling.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Ryugyong Hotel, North Korea

Apparently considered by many to be the ugliest building in the world I fear I'm in the minority by finding the Ryugyong hotel in Pyongyang quite beautiful. The first time I saw it I was working for an architectural charity and on the back of a magazine there was an advert for a competition to sort out this biggest of world architectural problems, but what I saw was a gothic pyramid - its emptiness somehow perfectly echoing this most abandoned of cities. Find rare footage of Pyongyang and you will rarely see a car on the street, tourists aren't allowed unless sponsored by the government and from an approved country. There's something amazing about the sheer scale of national denial in building the world's largest hotel in a country of no visitors. Yet it seems to be a fixation of many an isolated dictator - before he died Turkmanbashi of Turkmenistan was working on a whole street of marble 5 star hotels that he must have known would always stand empty. These buildings for me contain the very essence of the confusion, wasted misplaced dreams and hipocrisy of these societies. And brutal architectural ambition is hardly a new idea in dictatorial regimes - look at all the giant impossible edifices Stalin dreamt up that never came to life and the extraordinary communist structures that sometimes did (perhaps a subject for another post...).

Many great cities have giant hills rising from them, important buildings that piece the skyline as if bursting from the ground - taking possession of the image of the city they come to represent. The Ryugyong hotel has changed Pyongyang from a visually anonymous city to an instantly recognisable international skyline. I also think the use of a pyramidal shape is interesting - they are the greatest tombs of the world - giant structures hiding unknown secrets from a society that it's hard for us modern westerners to permeate. It is said that the communist regime often airbrushes photos to make the hotel appear open, but rather than an embarressed cover up I sometimes feel that there is also a sense of pride in this building - like it is waiting there for the moment the communist regime wishfully thinks its star will rise, take over the world, finish this building and then the west will be jealous. Communist regimes have always liked grand claims and the Ryugyong is the largest hotel in the world.

105 concrete stories high, the 3000 room hotel began construction in 1987 and halted in 1992 after the regime had put 2% of North Korea's GDP into its building. Since then it has been left to deteriorate further and as this video shows is a virtual wasteland:

Architects call for its demolition even though it is in a country they will never visit, may not be allowed to even if they wanted to. There is something about the Ryugyong hotel that unnerves people, but for me this is its power. Yes it is a creepy, brutalist if Cinderella lived in Bladerunner vision, but how often now do real buildings exist more in imagination than reality? This video shows some Italian architects vision of it being westernised then disappearing like a rocket into the stars: But this illustrates my point perfectly - it is pure science fiction, but in reality, in its untouchable, preposterous state it is also a blank canvas - the scale of ridiculous project most architects will only dream of being involved with. It represents a architectural virtual reality we can all have a distant piece of. There is even a collaborative website run by two German architects where you can claim a section for yourself!

But as architecturally unfashionable as it is to say, for me I'm afraid I just find it weirdly beautiful. I'm a sucker for modern ruins and urban decay, granted, but there is something about this building that is so utopian yet ridiculous at the same time that I can't help love it. For me it's hardly human any more but has a life of its own, aided by its incomplete empty of people status - it's the first communist organic man-made mountain - a building forever suited to explorers not hotel guests. A natural phenomena that people are almost scared to tackle.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Japanese singing roads

Places I want to visit: the hill of crosses, Lithuania

I stumbled across this place when researching unusual sacred places and browsing through Flickr. Not many places immediately draw me to them but this place was so peaceful yet dark at the same time, so considered and full of dedication yet completely chaotic and almost violent in its history and layout.

Located in the north near the small town of Siauliai, it has represented Lithuanian spiritual identity since medieval times. It is built by ordinary people going there and leaving a cross. The Soviet regime raised it to the ground three times - burning the crosses, levelling the hill, making scrap metal from the remains, covering it with sewage, but the spiritual devotion of the Lithuanian people rebuilt it again and again. It has rested peacefully since the mid 80s and now contains hundreds of thousands of crosses. I am always fascinated by memory and place - how one contains the other and in general how woefully inadequate monuments are in truly containing a sense of collective memory - for me it is the personal memory that is the more powerful and truly defines how something was. Yet due to its personal nature private memory can be virtually impossible for others to detect - for me the hill of crosses is one of the few places containing a genuinely powerful collective memory - it is not trying to define a specific event in one object but has been built up in layers of personal history and national identity over many years. It is a true place of pilgrimage as you can leave a part of yourself behind - each person adding a new layer to the power and memory of the place. It is also extraordinarily beautiful...

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

I may have been born just plain white trash...

...but Fancy was my name. This one's for Stu