The Manchester Art Authority presents: Living & Dying In Our Grandfathers’ Houses

E85459A9-060D-4355-A8D2-0D7E0D343DE1The Manchester Art Authority is occupying the first floor of vintage furniture outlet INSITU to exhibit a brand new work entitled Living and Dying In Our Grandfathers’ Houses, beginning with a launch on the evening of May 24th.

Having previously exhibited at Nexus Art Cafe with Pomona Is Rising and Pomona: Year Zero, this latest project continues to explore the links between the changing nature of places and the values we invest in them. This time the focus on place switches from urban edgeland to the domestic arena. Visitors to the exhibition will be invited to cross the threshold and ascend the stairs to enter a matrix of abstract grandfathers’ houses represented though image, text and artefacts as they explore the ‘rooms’.

The Manchester Art Authority is an ongoing creative collaboration between myself and Josef Minta. We both work as artists, writers and teachers. This project evolved through the artists’ experience of residing in houses of our own grandparents at different times in our lives, tapping into the larger existential themes at play such as how our own identity is affected when our most personal and familiar environments go through radical change.

INSITU provides the perfect venue for contemplating these themes of changing environments, the passing of time and identity, positioned just a stone’s throw from the new Pomona development, a landscape in flux, a very short walk from the end of Deansgate or Cornbrook tram station.

Living and Dying In Our Grandfathers’ Houses runs from the launch, 6-8pm on Thursday 24th May, until 4pm on Saturday 26th May at INSITU, 252 Chester Road, Hume, Manchester.

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Moel-Y-Don to Beaumaris

IMG_8725The skeletal boat partially submerged in the wet sandy flats of Moel-Y-Don transported itself to the Cloud with a tap of the screen.  Accompanied by its own fuzzy avatar and warnings of exhausted storage, the boat had waited long for the tide of technology to rise and liberate it from its sepulchral moorings.  For the first time on this trek, we turned our backs on the Menai Straits and headed up the hill towards the A4050.  Trending inland is the prevalent theme of this section of the Coastal Path.  In the preceding years of travelling along the southern coast by car, heading east via Menai Bridge to Beaumaris and Penmon, I had snatched glimpses of the Snowdonian range taunting me to identify its most northerly peaks, to separate one Carnedd from another, rising up beyond the water.  I had imagined picking over the rounded rocks that hug the coast below the A road, threading between inlets as the pier at Beaumaris grew taller on the horizon.  When studying the map the night before, we realised that the only truly coastal section of this leg is around and beneath the two bridges that straddle the Straits, dominating the real and iconic landscape of Anglesey to the south as South Stack lighthouse does in the north.  

Ascending the slope from the jetty, the warmth of the sun felt unfamiliar with hat, snood and gloves already redundant in our packs.  A solitary rider passed on horseback circled by a dog and young women cracked the silence outside the small string of blinding white cottages on the wharf.  The traffic on this single track lane was surprisingly steady as we passed the grounds of Plas Coch, where Scholes and Giggs had given the taxi driver who brought us from Beaumaris fifties for twelve pound fairs.  Our tip was not as generous, but by scale of earnings perhaps it was.  We picked tenners and fivers blooming on twisted stems around a pergola near the entrance to the Serenity Spa, the brown and the green crumbling in our palms like last autumn’s leaves.  

We continued north at the crossroads on the Coastal Path that is not a Coastal Path.  A coach bulged across the narrow lane, partially concealed by the hedgerow up ahead, as though breathing in, aiming for discretion.  And failing.  I retrod the path that runs along the stream flanked by fields on either side, the notion of a road so nearby already seeming like an immediate impossibility.  Here, the way is marked by the overhanging branches, the trees, the rolling fields expanding into the distance.  Heading east now, the river bank becomes deeper, steeper, broadening with a serious flow.  I remain vigilant for kingfishers but there is only the sparkling of the stream and the pebbles on the river bed cast copper and bronze from the morning sun filtering through the waters.  

Excavating my relatively distant past, I do not recall any presence of a sign from the road when I first visited Bryn Celli Ddu more than twenty years ago.  I have vague memories of navigating with a copy of The Modern Antiquarian and a road atlas serving as an approximation of an OS map.  Now, the way is signed and every visit is populated with more visitors.  Nevertheless the path off the road, along the river and across the bridge still feels like a pilgrimage of sorts.  As the track takes a turn for the perpendicular, it is hidden between high hedgerows, the likes of which are now also becoming symbolic of antiquated interfaces with nature.  Re-treading this path is one of the inner and supplementary pleasures that compounds the experience of visiting Bryn Celli Ddu.  I am walking through memories of my own past, activated through the dust that rises with every tramp of foot.  From those early days years ago when megaliths were still hidden shared secrets, still obscure to an unexpected early morning foray with a colleague and friend, escaping briefly from tough times in our shared occupation, to visiting for the first time with my wife and standing in the cool darkness of the interior, the earth heaped above our heads, crowds grazing unfazed nearby.  I re-tread my own past and it intersects with a deeper past, overlaying iterations of the same frames of consciousness, shared anxieties, concerns and joys that have been the human condition across the five millennia of Bryn Celli Ddu’s stoic existence.  In imaginary time-lapse photography, humanity rushes around this enduring construction like a returning tide.  

The burial mound rises about fifteen feet above the surrounding field, turf green with two points of entry.  Anglesey wraps around its curved stone walls.  The smell inside is of animal and earth.  As is common to most Neolithic sites and certainly typical to those of Anglesey, they are situated in spots that afford the visitor a perspective so perfect as to make the assertion that to construct it anywhere else would have been a category error.  Ley lines don’t work for me and I have no truck with a mythical past, I’m more concerned with the mythical present and its increasing indistinguishability from pasts we create for our own purposes.  I’m here in the intersection between ages, where I can see, breathe, reach out and touch the modern of five thousand years ago.  There is nothing like placing your hand against the unmistakably human hewn surface of a megalith to acquaint yourself with your own mortality.  Instead of the star-gazing effect of experiencing one’s own insignificance, you can feel your heart beating, feel the warmth of your own body against the cold of the stone, the leaves of the grass.  You can feel alive.  Now.  In my head are the lines from Rozi Plain’s Actually: ‘Don’t get over it; this is actually it…’

On the other side of the riverbank once more, the ‘path’ peels away from the river itself and the OS pushes us up an unmarked trajectory over empty fields towards the top of the hill, heading south east.  Near some crumbling outhouses in a walled, wooded grove, I turn and take a shot of the valley where Bryn Celli Ddu is situated.  The tomb is in a field adjacent to a farmhouse and to the rear there is an industry of vehicles and storage, construction is afoot.  Silage sacks, platforms and towers create a contemporary structure to complement the relative scale of the megalith.  It seems fitting, somehow.  

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Beyond the crest of the hill the Snowdon range rears its snowy white spine beyond the Straits, cutting into the clear blue sky.  The water seems a long way away.  

We skirt around an old expansive set of buildings being re-developed and re-built as high end apartments, surrounding a courtyard. IMG_8731 On the unfinished road we stand aside from construction vehicles on their endless returns.  At the A road, the Coastal Path sign leans back at 45 degrees, uprooted on its post, the sunlight filtering through the still bare branches of early spring, illuminating the circular motif as it cranes away from the path of the trucks.  The path appears to be stretching itself out of the way of impediments.  From here it runs mostly behind another hedgerow, shielded from the speed and the shunt of the cars.  The boardwalk as we cross the estuary is slippery under foot.  

 

More than the previous walk, this route is split into distinct stages with very different terrain.  On the other side of the road, we descend towards the Straits once more.  IMG_8734Following signs and the pull of gravity, we pass through a gate in a high garden wall, emerging onto a  compact harbour through the trees.  A man stands on the edge of the wharf opposite us, strolling in front of a Straitside cottage.  He is bearded and smokes a pipe.  He is wearing what looks like a thick-knit navy sweater and casting his eyes through his pipe smoke to survey the waters.  Is he real?  We exist in a world of simulacra.  We navigate this with relative ease.  Most of the issues arise when we forget that a particular simulacrum – say, a community or conversation – is not real in the traditional sense and there, where the real and the simulated collide, we discover that virtual actions have real effects.  And there are moments when what we took to be the real, the authentic, turns out to be a simulacrum… the traditional brew house that has only been specifically designed to mimic a traditional brew house… the ploughman’s lunch that is a synecdoche for an entire concept of bucolic nostalgia whose basis in reality is questionable.  Theme parks and the world of entertainment are packed with representations of reality that are so hackneyed, caricatured and stereotypical as to be obviously simulacra, lacking the detail and the subtle nuances of the real and the unending dynamism of the way that reality drives difference at every scale…  As they become more prevalent and occupy more territory in our consciousness, such simulacra invade the landscape of the real.  Their ubiquity breeds complacency towards them until in time, we surrender, unconsciously and begin to navigate their ripples, the outward spirals reaching out to further and further shores.  He is bearded and smokes a pipe.  It is 2018.  At the negligible but quaint harbour.  A dog investigates the sand ahead of him.  We are in the simulacra.  We are in the idea of an idea of rural coastal affectations.  An artist with a Breton shirt ID of horizontal stripes.  The ploughman’s lunch.  His face is in shadow.  He is too far away across the inlet, across the stones strewn with weed and the ebbing residue of the Straits.  Of course he is there, on the modest harbour wall at the end of the ramp descending into the sand.  He is bearded and smokes a pipe.  It is 2018.  What if the simulacra was too real?  What if this was the simulacra and the harbour master was an over-zealous glitch, an algorithm awry?  Can you be too real to be real?  Isn’t that the definition of being real?  

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A group of older women approach smiling, enjoying the sunshine and the walk.  We stop and chat.  This is our first time on this route.  We are advised against the turning of the tide.  We are advised that we have plenty of time to make it to Menai Bridge.  We move on on this thin path above the marginal beach between us and the water.  A dog does gonzo laps of a park beyond the fence, its tongue lolling out, its eyes crazed and dizzy.  The prospect of an incoming tide quickens our steps.  We move down onto the pebbles and feel the world rise up above us: the immense statue of Nelson, silhouetted high on his plinth, the grandeur of the Britannia bridge arching over the water and the white white peaks of the mountains framing it all.  

We head up through the graveyard of St Mary’s church, someone’s children outflanking us, bored with their walk and eager to play and hide amongst the dead.  The view east right along the Straits is incredible.  Next to this viewpoint there is a cuboid tomb, ancient and weathered, the ground around it eroded and the end square of the coffin gone, the inside hollow, sunlit lasers burning seams of light along its mismatched edges.  I think of Bryn Celli Ddu and the splendour of the views for the dead all those millennia ago.  As I peer into this tomb now I imagine deceased feet kicking out the missing panel, dead eyes staring out across the sea, teeth exposed and grinning.  The prospect of this final resting place, for one without belief in the afterlife such as myself, is strangely alluring.  I think of the anamorphic skull in the blurred foreground of Holbein’s Ambassadors as they presided over journeys real and symbolic, journeys of conquest and journeys of supposed progress.  Symbols of mortality haunt this tranquil and easy leg of the Coastal Path.  

The memorial statue of Nelson is yet another human edifice that serves as a meditation on death and the past.  Built by Admiral Lord Clarence Paget who resided in Plas Llanfair up on the shore, Nelson presides forever over what he apparently referred to as ‘one of the most treacherous stretches of sea in the world’.  When Paget was sculpting this he was sculpting myths, propagating imperialist power structures and simultaneously, propagating the tendency of cultures divested of power to exaggerate the dramatic features of their own environment.  He set these myths in stone.  I would like to stay and watch the tide rise around Nelson’s neck but I take heed of the warnings, however hyperbolic, about these waters.  Obedience to authority preserved across the centuries.  Down here on the shore, crouching low amongst the rocks and the kelp, something has gone wrong with scale.  There is no external scale with which to measure and arrange the gigantic edifices.  As soon as technology and finance permitted the alchemy of possible into real, the niche between the southern coast of Anglesey and the northern coast of Wales were inevitably filled with constructions attempting to match the heft of the mountains beyond – the mountains that dominate the southerly perspective from almost anywhere on the island.  But not from here.  Here the peaks are relegated, tamed.  

IMG_8740I scurry closer to and further from the base of the plinth, lining up my shots, scurrying in and out of the shadows of imperialism, below Nelson’s booted feet, the footnotes of Empire.  K walks on ahead of me, oblivious, in the moment, whilst I scramble about in the rock pools of history, enacting at one remove, what we all do from moment to moment anyway.  At one remove yet further again, isn’t that what recreational walking is?  Our usual footsteps reconfigured/transposed, to an environment in which we are the pilots of our own perambulations for a change? Or conversely, committing ourselves to the random wanderings of the flaneur, breaking out of our habitual engagement in life to roam, observe, cogitate?  Roaming across this negligible strand on the fringes of the Straits west of Britannia Bridge reminds me that there is no escape, however much we detach ourselves from constraint, there are always these channels of history and politics, sculpting the landscape, literally and unconsciously.  There is no external scale.  There is no reprieve.  There is only the labyrinth as we pick our way over the rocks, in and out of the shadows.  

Nelson’s hatted head presides higher and higher above the bridge the closer we get until he is behind us.  There are two inscriptions on his plinth: Fell at Trafalgar in 1805 and England expects that every man will do his duty.  Nelson is in his place.  Even in tribute he is immortalised by his servility.  England expects.  Every man.  The water gleams further out but I reassure myself that at last the tide has turned.  Earlier, I marvelled at the unexpected situation of this statue – maybe I had glimpsed it from countless road trips, usually from the driver’s seat, behind the wheel when crossing the bridge or skirting the south of the island.  Upon leaving it, I felt grateful of its obscurity despite its size: an atrophied relic of less equitable times. 

There are several moments where the way bends back against itself as the Coastal Path that is not a Coastal Path fights against contours, roads and houses to cling to the shore, or as close as it can manage.  Now we veer past the grounds of the Gwesty Carreg Bran hotel complex and dip beneath the overpass of theIMG_8745 A55 North Wales Expressway.  Fences rise up above us caging the greenery.  Magically, after the long dark winter of 2017/2018, our walk has coincided with the hottest day of the year yet by far.  Amber rays of sun filter lazily through the branches, through the cross hatching of the wires, cutting across our skin and rolling up our sleeves.  The woodland smells of blooms and life.  The sun has activated everything.  I urinate over a pile of stacked timber and watch the steam rise.  

 

There is a Brutalism in the concrete pillars that elevate the A55 and the infrastructure of the railway up on Stephenson’s bridge.  Spray painted with tags and crude illustrations the flags and angles create an intimate refuge, free from the horrors of heritage into something more wild and daring.  Is this where everything converges?  This vortex of transport and its dingy environs?  

For some people, the thought of being exposed in anIMG_8757 expanse of open ground is enough to induce agoraphobia, for others it is claustrophobia that stifles their sleep.  I have experienced, throughout my life, the recurring yet fleeting grip of dread in imagining how it would feel to be close up against a gigantic edifice – for example, an oil rig, the enormous hull of a ship or a power plant.  I anticipate feeling utterly dwarfed, not being able to catch my breath in such proximity and panic sets in.  The source of this unusual apprehension is completely mysterious.  Even more so is the fact that it is rarely, if ever, an actual rather than an imagined experience.  It preoccupied my thoughts on the morning of heading out towards Wylfa, on the previous leg of this journey, almost to the extent that I found it hard to look at the structure on the horizon until I had no other choice.  It lured me into IMG_8751its maw with intractable gravitational pull.  In reality, it held nothing other than fascination and inspiration in a million different directions.  This feeling stalks the periphery of my consciousness on the approach to the Britannia Bridge, but the air is so warm, the light so yellow through the trees that we are beneath the bridge already, clambering up towards the platform, at ease in the modernity that surrounds us.  Traffic is above our heads, the sections of carriageway separated with slivers of light.  Straight ahead the railway tracks disappear to a point of distant convergence, guarded on either side by the limestone lions, noble and impervious to their hidden existence for such grand beasts high up above the waters of the Straits.  

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It is hard to leave the space between track and road, above the water and above the woodland canopy.  As we descend back to the path,IMG_8762 a train eases along the tracks bound for Holyhead.  Back alongside the water, for the longest stretch on this leg, we emerge through boggy woodland where photographers have set up their tripods, catching shots of bird life and images of the bridge.  The low lying fields beyond the trees are sodden and some navigation is required to avoid a breach.  Now we are between bridges as Thomas Telford’s original bridge spans the Straits ahead.  We are almost at Menai Bridge and it feels as though there is too far to go.  

Our route takes us up north once more, perpendicular to the run of the coast.  We tramp IMG_8763the A5 and leave the shore behind us before returning on what looks like a recently constructed section of the path that passes Church Island.  Again, the walk is flanked by graves basking in the unexpected sun.  This path takes us into Menai Bridge itself as we wend through the outskirts of the small town near the promenade.  Heading out the other side we pass second hand shops and cafes, the pavement thinning out until we cross the busy road.  It is here that we say goodbye to the coast as we head north and east, through suburbs, uphill and out through Llandegfan.  It is Thursday.  There is no-one home except for occasional figures stepping out of their cars, across their driveways and disappearing into their houses.  The mountain views must be magnificent from those windows.  

Eventually, the Coastal Path that is not a Coastal Path departs what has become a single track lane and we venture once more across unmarked fields.  Our only real guide is vague direction from the map and the occasional glimpse of a waymarker on the horizon.  Marshland deeper and wider than the three tyres placed as stepping stones almost impedes our progress but then we are climbing again, up through gorse and scrubland, past hill-climbing cows glimpsed through the trees.  In the late afternoon, the regained road leads us down into Beaumaris, eleven more miles behind us.  

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Cemaes to Porth Swtan

 

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The bay window was aptly named, curving out from the wall of our room at Castellor and depicting a double triptych of Cemaes Bay. Our rucksacks heavy with a day’s supply of water, we headed down to the modest harbour and picked up the trail, soon leaving the village behind us. Still flanked by the last of the houses, surveying the waters of the cove as they merged with the Irish Sea, the white surf of a break in the surface caught my attention. Then again, a fraction further off the rocks to the west. Through the lens of the miniature binoculars a sizeable creature could be seen, its white hide and tall fin rolling up out of the blue. At one point I was sure I glimpsed its grinning face. We watched for some time, taking turns with the binoculars, tracking its intermittent appearances westward, accompanied by darker, more discreet fins less flamboyant in their progress. Dolphins off the coast of the most northerly village in Wales.

In all my visits to Anglesey, I had always avoided any sight of Wylfa. Aside from the controversial nature of any nuclear power facility, it is always described as a particular offence to the natural beauty of the coastal landscape and a hurdle to be negotiated for visitors. Rarely venturing to the northern coast I had occasionally caught glimpses of it from the road, from Holyhead mountain and from one or two of the nearby megaliths over the years. The thought of walking past it did not appeal. I imagined the contrast between the gentle coastline and the hulking reactors rising up from sea level. In my dreams I saw colossal concrete structures looming above me as I picked over the shore. The hairs on my arms rose as I became dwarfed in the shadows of this enormous industrial ship run aground, showing signs of rust and decay decades before its inevitable decommission.

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Within minutes of leaving Cemaes we were alongside the former nuclear plant. Our path was afforded an unexpected processional quality as diversionary signs took us through corridors of temporary fencing, zig-zagging to and from the original coastal route. Earthworks abounded on the embankments either side where excavators were abandoned for the weekend. Before returning to the path proper, we observed the early stages of an archaeological dig, the land scraped bare revealing crude foundations and an assortment of artefacts or labels bagged and fixed in situ, the polythene fluttering in the breeze. As we arrived beside the power station I wondered what toxic remains our descendants might initially enthuse over. The tomb will be opened, the curse it will strike.

A short detour took us up onto the headland furthest north, offering a fine vantage point over Cemaes to the east and revealing the extent of our journey to the west. Descending from the concrete hut with its boarded windows and corrugated iron extension, we caught the continuing progress of our dolphin friend, its pale hide striking out against the bright blue of sea and sky. Above the curious hut, a tall weathered pole with a short cross piece near the top formed a silhouette against the sun, the remains of a telegraph pole now transformed into a ragged totem.

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As we completed our circuit of the promontory, I realised that what I had assumed to be just the part of Wylfa visible from further away was indeed the total extent of the structure: a smaller cuboid of muted gold and the turbine hall in olive green. Strangely, the closer we got, the smaller the entire edifice appeared to be. Instead of becoming increasingly intimidating as it had been on the nightmarish outskirts of my mind’s landscape, it diminished and softened before us in its pastel shades and coastal colours. Beyond the woods and thin grass of the headland, between the sky and the sea, Wylfa seduced me. I took out my camera again and again, marvelling at how it integrated into the landscape, its blunt geometric forms redolent of an abstract painting, the blocks of colour forming the strata of an alternative compressed geology, where something undeniably human ruptured the equilibrium of Earth and sky.

Intoxicated, we were lost. Repeatedly consulting OS 216, checking the extent of the path west and partially retracing our footsteps, we stumbled over the rubble strewn threshold of a fallen wall next to a security gate flanked with a higher fence skirting the road into the complex. We seemed to be following the route on the map, running parallel to the path that brought us to Wylfa but now heading in the opposite direction. A short fence separated us from the main route, a further gap in the wall connecting the two and then we were into a long grassy meadow, the stumps branded with the IOACP insignia nowhere to be seen. Traversing another ring fenced embankment we plunged through yet another fallen wall and headed into the darkness of the woods.

Emerging briefly into a clearing, a pair of buzzards rose up off the ground and circled above our heads, gliding back and forth, their pale, speckled undersides in contrast to the unbreakable blue. As with the dolphin, these animals appeared exuberant, revelling in the last of the summer sun. Having delayed already, we continued into the gloom of the trees. I began to believe I had only dreamt a decommissioned nuclear reactor beyond the enfolding green canopy.

We rediscovered the path heading back into the woods, back towards Wylfa, unseen 7004D6C7-3408-4FFB-9F43-466D765B240Dthrough the thicket. Off a single track lane we found a laminated sheet stuck to a fence bearing the legend Ring o’ Fire. The path weaved through the trees passing a small stone windowless house with solar panels affixed to the roof. The irony. As we veered up a steep embankment, I noticed an assemblage of large stones amongst the undergrowth, and another sign regarding the Ring o’ Fire. No sooner had the feeling occurred to me that we were heading in the wrong direction than I found myself at the top of a short flight of steps cut from the spongy ground beneath the pines. Here, a shallow, turreted wall arose where the footpath culminated beyond the branches. The full breadth of Wylfa consumed the vista, impressing its reality upon us, drawing my phone from my rucksack to take another picture. “There’s no point coming up, it’s just a dead end,” I called to save K from mounting the steps. Behind me, the facade of the power station glowed in the sunlight.

Tracking back, we found the way marker we had missed, subtly positioned off a junction 02312175-12B2-42FF-945D-5A6667108C1Dof paths not easily seen from the short ascent. Single file, I followed K through ever narrowing passageways between hedgerows, brambles and thistles that bit through our trousers. In a shaded copse we passed a spiky gamma detection station, before emerging onto the main road to the plant.

Eventually, cutting back down to the shore, we crossed a footbridge passing by an abandoned stone house almost on the beach itself. A stream poured down the steep flank to the side of the house, emptying into the sea. To the rear, the whole area had been F33249E5-3B65-40DE-A6A8-EE1AEEF9A526occupied by Gunnera manicata. The rhubarb giant had stormed the river bank, rising to its full prehistoric scale and had gradually begun its assault on the house itself. A faded sign on the gate between the property and a fence intended to separate the back garden from the front read PRIVATE GARDENS STRICTLY NO ADMITTANCE. Indistinguishable in height from the mature deciduous trees behind them, these herbaceous sentinels had made their point.

As we approached Cemlyn Bay, glances over my shoulder confirmed my suspicions: what a different journey this would be in the opposite direction. From the reverse perspective, Wylfa dominated the landscape. Not by its size or heft, but by its sheer difference to the irregularity of the environment around it. The path goes to Wylfa, but few on the path will be going there as a destination. Yet, walking in the direction of Wylfa, heading east perhaps to Cemlyn or to Cemaes and beyond would feel like walking to Wylfa as a destination in itself. It is always in view. It maintains a maddening equilibrium of attraction and repulsion. The further west we walked, looking back over the miles eastward, Wylfa, like the Gunnera, increased in size, becoming more monstrous with each glance. We took the tidal route across the causeway, our boots heavy in the thick shingle. A little egret danced in the shallows of the lagoon beneath the reeds.

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An elderly couple studied the strata of rocky promontories slipping out into the sea. Oblivious to us up on the path, he pointed his walking pole at the striations while she stood back, consulting some reading material. Both appeared to be reading, her with her head bent over and him scanning the ancient pre-Cambrian alphabet. I am back at Warwick in 1996. I am reading, with equal intent and blinkered concentration. I turn the pages, scan the lines and fathom the depths of Stephen Jay Gould, Deleuze and Guattari, Nietzsche and Richard Dawkins. Gould’s texts are life-affirming, entertaining and full of a wide ranging understanding of the natural world that never gives in to dogma or the self-assured complacency of Dawkins. Deleuze and Guattari are the bastard twins of Nietzsche in his prime. They cause chaos, disrupting every line of inquiry I have. I love them for their wild abandonment, their rebellious childish glee. I watch the man on the shore examining rocks that predate the Cambrian explosion and I am piecing together fragments of my own past. I try and relocate the salient points of Gould’s argument and my lack of sharpness in retention dismays me. I stare out across the still waters towards the Skerries as we walk on in the shared silence of the unfit. I see no dolphins and no porpoise, but as the occasional wave ripples and reveals a peak of rock, images emerge from the water.

Gould argued that fossilised remains of pre-Cambrian life forms reveal evidence of a wide diversity of phyla that became totally extinct. Entire phyla, not species, ceased to evolve and cannot be assimilated into the phyla that developed in the Cambrian explosion. This is a controversial argument nearly thirty years after his book, Wonderful Life, was published. It has implications for models of evolution: bush or tree, rhizome or root? Evidence of such life forms is rare, due to their soft bodied composition. Gould based his conclusion that evolution is subject to catastrophic punctures rather than operating along sleeker lines, on his interpretation of discoveries made in the fossil deposit of the Burgess Shale about four thousand miles away in the direction I am now looking, across the sea and the States, in the Rockies of British Columbia.

On the shoreline a few feet to the north of me, the pre-Cambrian is exposed. Paleoclimatologists have predicted long-term climate changes based on the Burgess Shale fossil record, attempting to model extinction and survival patterns when temperatures reach similar levels due to the expansion of the sun. In the east I can still see Wylfa. I think about radioactive waste and carbon emissions. I think about the solar panels on the roof of that mute stone shack in the woods. I scan the horizon for turbines. There are none.

Our way across Carmel Head is heralded by the looming presence of two gigantic pillars facing out towards the channel between the mainland and the string of offshore islands C13D133C-F124-4302-9A23-CE90FAFE0FA3known as the Skerries and closer to us, West, Middle and East Mouse. Totemic and slightly foreboding, I am surprised to learn that these modern looking shards date back to 1860. Known as the Three White Ladies, when aligned with their sister obelisk on West Mouse, they indicate the presence of a dangerous reef hazardous to shipping. As with Wylfa, it’s surprisingly difficult to judge the scale of such monuments on open land with little to compare of human significance. Numerous trips to Skye have been spent with binoculars poised through the open car window at the side of some bendy carriageway, trying to judge the size of a raptor over indistinguishable moorland. A far away eagle or a nearby buzzard? It’s amazing how quickly you realise how little you really know about anything once the overtly human landscape recedes. But on Skye, as here on Carmel Head, the wilderness is haunted by its human past. This stretch of the coast is lonely with its weathered ruins and concrete towers.

We are flagging as we finally turn south and begin the final leg towards Porth Swtan. Across the bay we draw level with the incinerator on Holy Island. Another mute totem. Is it the flat surface of this island that has encouraged humans to erect vertical edifices, trying to somehow transcend the natural platform? Most of Anglesey is a treasure trove of megaliths – shattered circles, chambered cairns and bony fingered monoliths. Once I would have scoured this north western reach disappointed at its relative lack of such remains. Now I understand that they are all around me: the megaliths of the anthropocene already frozen in time through disuse. Vestigial.

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Bitter Familiar

What is it with gooseflesh? Invisible ripples cast from a distant/not so distant shore, configures my skin into miniature mountains, hairs stand high, the nape of the wind blasted treeline, heavy legs climb the stairs. I feel it blow through me, seen indirectly: disturbance on the surface, freshwater ripples, forearms, shoulders, the back of my neck.

100 years of De Stijl; centenary of the line, the double line, an ellipsis drifting over from one millennium to the next. How bold, how modern, how full of hope: out of the cave and towards the light, beyond the fireside shadows towards my truth and yours… squinting, blinded, back into the darkness, open the gates, saltwater streams in, bitter, familiar.

I turn away from Marlow Moss to find they overlaid my vision: window, subdivided sections, street line, skyline, the rectangular face of a building cropped within a single pane. I can’t turn away from Marlow Moss, can’t escape from Mondrian.

Top of the stairs, the walls drawing closer and drawings on the walls. The dim light, the lines are here that measured your advance: double, triple, quadruple, growing in the silent night until finally the gates are opened. Saltwater rushes in.

Your father’s voice on an endless loop in the back room.

Your father’s voice on an endless loop in the back room.

Your father’s voice on an endless loop in the back room.

 

Relflections on 100 Years of De Stijl at De Stedelijk and Anne Frank House, Amsterdam, April 2017IMG_6773

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The Shortest Day

She walks across the road to the pharmacy. She sees the city in the far distance, down on the plain. The door and shopfront window are a milky sheen, reflecting the December clouds.

She swings the old Saab onto the sharp curve of the slip-road, accelerates, indicates and steers across two lanes. The short motorway – a three lane precursor feeding into the outer ring road – flashes past her. As she ascends the steep ramp to the roundabout, she slows down for the lights, rising to the summit. The road surface leading out beyond the bonnet, the gantries, the high concrete walls diminishing towards the crest of the hill, the blur of buildings beyond the junction, the tallest towers and the sky itself, all bleached in dusty sparse December hues, all painted with the same grey brush.

It seemed inescapable but here she is, the vivid pea green of the soggy moorland fields, the black furrowed mud and her shadow darkening the surface of the puddles. Her hood is up, the Pennine rain lashing against it. She closes the gate behind her and wends down the path towards the valley floor, past the ramshackle farm or mill or whatever it was. Past the outhouses and potholes and under the gigantic concrete columns of the viaduct. Beyond the thin sliver of the lake, urban outposts are still visible, then the gentle sweep of the hills, turbines, battalions of pylons.

With practised care she unhooks the barbed wire, opens the gate and starts up the sharp incline, past the danger of death signs plastered onto fence posts until she reaches the point where she cannot stand without hitting her head. She sits in the shade on a fold out seat produced from her rucksack and begins eating her sandwich. The enormous turrets obstruct her view, inevitably, but below her the valley is green and verdant, a stream winds through, sheep graze oblivious to the rain falling heavily, either side of this massive canopy. She sips some coffee from her flask and looks up to the darker grey of the concrete roof, the underside of the M62, unable to hear her own thoughts amidst the roaring, relentless traffic only metres from her head. Beyond the slim girders, between the massive slabs of carriageway, there is a gap for drainage through which she sees the sky. Another shade of grey.

Winter Solstice
2016

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Christmas Party

In the office the mood is tense.  I am aware that I have stepped between worlds.  Saturated with anticipation for what is about to happen, yet excited by how the room is now in contrast with how it used to be, for what it used to mean.  Open plan yet prison cell.  Now all the monitors are off, decorations swoon from the ceiling tiles and colleagues have disembarked from their work spaces, breaking cover to sit on the edge of desks and congregate in the aisles, brandishing plastic cups, arms folded or free hands locked in pockets, running through the gamut of conversational tropes that remain not yet quite exhausted but tired, weary, a mutual acceptance that words are required to plug in the gaps.  Unshackled from the norms of the environment, the lights lowered and without the ubiquitous glow of the screens, the alcohol pushes us further from familiar shores.  By the water cooler, Malik and Jean have replaced the usual syntactic structures of their conversation with something less constrained and before long they are speaking at each other – verb, verb, subject, object and then a flurry of verb, object, subject – but somehow they both become aware that they are communicating more intimately than ever before. 

“Clever, isn’t it?” I say, as we both tune in to their conversation. 

You nod affirmatively.  “Clever but funny at the same time.”

“Mmmm.  It’s something you don’t often hear, a syntactical joke.  Genius.  You need real chemistry to do that and a total understanding of what not to say, it’s hard to pull off, you’ve got to really know what you’re doing…”

We listen a bit longer, watching them as are others, so evidently lost in their communique.  It’s then that we realise that Bob and Lisa, from accounts, are using a delay with an increasing lag between the production and audible utterance of each word, with Lisa’s voice also drenched in heavy reverb.  Their words are coming in randomly as they alter the frequency of delay and there is so much space in Lisa’s voice it’s as though the entire building itself is speaking.  I feel her vowels reverberate through my stomach. 

Suddenly, amidst the diffusion of words, applause crackles across the room as Sophie, Ray, Chris and Tanisha materialise near the buffet table.  Malik and Jean have now taken things another level up, cutting and pasting morphemes into unrecognisable words with astonishing speed and accuracy. 

“It’s all rubbish anyway,” says Kev.  “You start to think of language as reflecting the world but unless you wake up and realise they’re all closed systems of their own then you’re just as enslaved by them as you are by the concept of work…  Are you truly using language to express yourself or is it the language that is enabling and constraining your thoughts?  I say your thoughts, but frankly, that’s not clear either, is it?”

Sophie and the team have been on a reccy.  This is the last outpost.  The last office team to be relocated before the lease expires and the building is converted to apartments and gym.  From somewhere in the catacombs they have snaffled a diverse haul of cacti, high-end laptops and a luxurious leather swivel chair.  Ray, Chris and Tanisha are wearing tall party hat crowns fashioned from repurposed corporate signage.  While Sophie opens the buffet, Chris and the rest stare hard at the throng, their eyelids wide and determined amongst the applause as sandwiches and cake are crammed into eager mouths as though no-one has encountered food before.  An encore of delayed words resumes and Malik and Jean seem to have regressed into echolalia.  Simon is telling anecdotes about his old days as an engineer working between buildings, about how he could fox his superiors by accessing secret GPO tunnels beneath the city centre.  And then Sophie and the team have gone. 

 

Cate Le Bon

The Deaf Institute

Manchester

December 2016

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Almost Certain We Are Here

The rhythm insistent, set by the oars dipping and sweeping the grey. Fingers,
tendrils, a seaweed of mists easing the hull onto shore. Sand and shingle, skindistinguishable, barefoot whispers, soles exposed, first hand, second hand, we find the way onto the headland.

Weary, at the top of the hill, we seek sanctuary in coarse confines, rough edges smooth enclose us. Rafters, stone, brick, essentials. Solid. Real. Almost certain we are here. Looking past me through the night black glass, red lights twitch descent beyond the high-rise, the whole town darkened, except here, in the yellow glow, where the light gets in…

Where The Light Gets In
7 Rostron Brow
Stockport
SK1 7JY

November 2016

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