28 May 2011

Manchastic! Er...Manchesterrific? (Part II)

Day Two of my Manchester visit took us to the Victoria Baths, a beautiful disused bathhouse near Nija's place:

Therein we expected to find a 'zine fair'. 'Zines' (zeens) if you don't know, are basically small-run, independently-produced, often hand-made booklets or magazines, usually focusing on art, poetry, short stories, music, subcultures involving those things, or just weirdness. It's actually a really hard-to-describe concept, now that I think about it. It boggles the mind how many of these things must have been put out over the years around the world. Actually, the fact that they're called something in particular, and not just 'books' or 'magazines', says something about modern publishing. As usual, the Wikipedia entry is worth looking at. I could probably drone on and on about them, but that's not the point here.

Point is, we went in and found that the fair was part of the FutureEverything festival's 'Handmade' event and included some installation 'kinetic art' pieces called Physical Oscillators by Antony Hall:


There were zines indeed, and vegan baked goods, and weird arts/crafts/science projects, and so on. Nija found out about a community laser milling outfit that will cut all kinds of stuff out of plastic, metal etc for you if you give them a design, I presume for free or very little dough, much like Sydney's Rizzeria is meant to do for people needing high-quality colour printing. (PS: Check out news about the MCA Zine Fair in Sydney this past weekend on the Rizzeria wesbite. What the weird?! Must be that time of year.)

That evening we had a hot date with Nija's friends Michael and Bernadette, who live in the lovely little Tameside town of Mossley, a 20-minute trainride to the Northeast of Manchester. We headed up to Victoria Station to get a train but just missed ours and had an hour to kill. Victoria is a fine old place, with a classic look (see yesterday's post) and a great tile mural near the entrance:

Something about those lists of sea destinations to the east just takes my breath away.

So with our spare hour Nija and I decided to tuck into our first pints of the day at the station pub. Fortunately they also served nachos, which Nija prescribed to me as part of my 'fattening-up' diet. Now let me tell you something: I've never eaten nachos in a train station before, and I did that day. And they were not the best nachos ever, but they were also not the worst. And there I shall leave it.

The plate of nachos almost cleaned entirely, we got our train, which was full and wound up getting hung at some point along the journey due to a failed train up ahead. It was amazing how nearly everyone on our car went to sleep as a response. Nija dozed off, I fought bravely but probably had a wink, and all those around us just lapsed into comas as though the train were filling with its own exhaust. We got moving again, but the trip to Mossley took us twice what it should have, I'm told.

The purpose of our journey was that we had tickets to a Mossley theatre company's production of Acorn Antiques, Victoria Wood's soap-opera spoof about a small-town ('Manchesterford') antiques shop and the grotesque caricature-people involved with the place. The play is based on a regular segment of her 80s TV series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, but it's a musical. The main characters are there, but the play features all mod cons, such as mobile phones.

After a pleasant visit to Michael and Bernadette's place and some excellent homemade pizza and salad, we walked up to 'Top Mossley' for the show. This just happened to be the final show of the run, and so the community centre was packed. We were all worked up, looking forward to a classic small-town theatre production, as you do. We wanted crappy sets, flubbed lines, dazed performers. Something to chortle over when we got home, don't you know. The schadenfreude of the city-dweller.

And we were resoundingly disappointed.

The sets were very competently-built and didn't collapse once. The lead actors were probably all professionals. Even the obviously non-professional cast members were good. The orchestra was top-notch, and the singing and dancing were quite fine (especially the surprise group tap-dance number). Worst of all, it was hilarious. And I mean the kind of hilarious that you're allowed to laugh at!

We were told we wouldn't get most of it, not being from Britain, but I think we actually cottoned on to quite a bit of it. Broad, crude humour seems to easily surmount whatever national boundary it encounters. It was especially gratifying to see all the old folks guffawing at the jokes about sex and bowel movements. Fantastic! And some of the utterly ridiculous plot elements were just undeniably charming and smart. One character has a cellphone that he says will play 'Daisy, Daisy' if it's his mum's nursing home calling to say she's passed on. Sure enough, it does.

Actually, it seems the play captured the old show's brilliant irreverence really well. Check out this episode from 1990:

It makes me realise that all the professionalism might have actually been completely misplaced. Perhaps what we saw was actually a bad show after all! Note the deliberateness with which Acorn Antiques was meant to look like a low-budget soap opera. In this episode the exterior fly is waving around in the breeze, the actors flub and miss their blocking and cues, the boom mics and cameras dangle into the shot, and Julie Walters almost walks into the audience. Like I said, in Mossley, no one screwed up, the sets were perfect, and everything went off without a hitch!

Silly small-town people.

Next time: the Lakes!

26 May 2011

Manchastic! Er...Manchesterrific? (Part I)

Call it what you will, Manchester is a fine little place. A "mini-Melbourne", I go around saying, as if I've hit on some kind of meaningful nugget of a phrase, when really it's a creaky parochialism if ever there was one. Or maybe that prize should go to "a maxi-Erskineville".

But Manchester is indeed Melbournesque: it's flat, has trams, has buildings from the 1800s, it's "cold", it has nice little bars and cafes, it has wild mobs of rival football fans roaming around, and so on. So here in Sydneytown, when the hipsters look at me askance when I mention Manchester, I just pounce on them with the morsel of truthful analogy-drawing above, and watch the jaws drop. They expect industrial wasteland, and I present them with the notion of a sophisticated playground for the epicurially-inclined. Though I'm not sure how the Manchester Egg fits into that algebra.

Of course, all those benefits pale in comparison---for me, anyway---to the one thing that Manchester, and only Manchester, can claim (and it's not the damn Egg):

No, not the Victoria train station either. I mean, that's nice and all, but I'm talking about the Nija in the lower right-hand corner. She's quite a resource to boast, and any city would be lucky to have her. Of course, she withdrew that honour from Sydney back in June 2010, and ever since then her absence has been noted up and down our long and ragged shoreline.

For me, of course, her departure was particularly tough, as we had for so long gone about as a pair. We came to Sydney two wide-eyed foreigners with very little to our names and only each other to hold on to. When she left after two years, everything changed.

And after dropping her off in Manchester in September of last year, like any good academic I signed up for the next reasonable conference within a few hundred km. Coming from Australia, this is a great scam that allows the Boss to pay for the big ticket airline fare, then the Worker shells out a few peanuts for a local flight. And that's why it makes sense to spend 100 years in school like me!

(Just kidding, Bosses. I hope you know that I considered the conference that you organised to be pretty important. And thanks for the airfare.)

Fortunately, this big-deal conference was in France, in Nice even! A beautiful spot and a 2-hour flight from London (which is a ridiculous ~35-minute flight from Manchester). Long story short, I busted my keister for months getting stuff ready for the conference. I went, had a great time, met some important folks, and got inspired. How could you not, in a conference centre that looks like this:

that's across the street from this?:

Ah France! Such a smörgåsbord of the awful and sublime! (Please note that because of European unification it is now legitimate to mix enthoculinary metaphors as demonstrated in the previous sentence.)

Nice was rather resplendent and is just downwind from Cannes, where at the same moment cinema royalty was agglomerating for its yearly gorging. I can see why they chose May over, say, December for the film festival. (Terrence Malick won the Palme d'Or, by the way, for his very dubious-looking Tree of Life.) I didn't see any famous types, but I did pay €50 for a 10-minute cab ride, so I felt famous.

After I was all conferenced-out, I headed for Manchester via London. Coming in to the Manchester airport my seatmate and I were gazing morosely out the window at the sopped tarmac, the cloudy sky, and the airport workers all bundled up, in mid-May mind you. "Look at that," he groaned. "Lovely!" I chirped. "You're joking, this is grim," he chided. And he was from Glasgow.

My bag, when I got it off the belt, reeked of €24 organic wine, just like the stuff I'd bought in Nice before leaving and stuck haphazardly into my bag. I sensed a connection, which was confirmed when I opened the bag to find one of my wine bottles broken cleanly in half. The contents had dumped out into the bag, but after some inspection it seemed that not everything was wet, which told me that the bag must have been inverted with the wine near the "bottom" so that, hopefully, someone else's bag caught the brunt of it. Maybe it was that person who was clearing his throat incessantly during the flight. I hope so.

I grabbed the train to the city, and as we toddled along in the Manchester exurbs, I noticed an undeniable anxiety that told me that I had changed, that she had changed, that I wasn't ready for this reunion. That maybe she didn't want to see me that much. That things just wouldn't be right.

Before long the buildings started to look familiar: Beetham tower, the wheel, and the other prominent bits of the Manchester skyline. And I got to the Piccadilly Station, where I expected her to be. And she wasn't there. Anxieties more than confirmed!

Did I have the wrong station? How did I mess up? I looked for a phone, dug for change, found none, got frustrated, and just turned on my phone and called. She was late, she apologised, because the website said my flight was delayed. She was on the way.

And I sat on a bench and waited, and eventually saw this person come in across the lobby, a person whose being has occupied so much of my attention for the last decade but who has lapsed from my little physical universe, becoming only an image on a screen, a voice through a speaker, words on a page, a memory, a hope.

She was real, and she was looking for me, and she hugged and kissed me, though I probably smelled of wine. She took me to dinner, and all was well in the Dirty Old Town.

More to come...

11 May 2011

Orfortress of Solitude

This past March, I was on empty, desolate Orfordness, bewildered, looking at these shards of glass that fell from who knows where, into an inadvertent sculpture. Yes, this blog post is way overdue. Anyway: at that moment, the nerdy pun that makes the title of this post popped into my head, and I laughed at myself. Dorky joke, I thought, and went looking for other things to bewilder me and take photos of.


Orfordness is a spit off the southeast coast of England. A spit, for those of you not in the geographical know, is a tiny peninsula, a long thin geographical toothpick of a peninsula. Orfordness, importantly, is a shingle spit. For those of you not in the geological know, "shingle" is basically pebbles. Orfordness, then, is a tiny little peninsula mostly made of and covered with pebbles. Excitingly, Orfordness is a vegetated shingle spit. And for those of you not in the know, vegetated shingle spits are incredibly rare on our wild planet. And Orfordness is the biggest one ever, at about 2,300 acres.

Having learned this, you will no doubt be surprised to find I wasn't on Orfordness to continue my internationally-renowned geomorphology research. Rather, I was there to do anthropology work with my Documentary and Sensory Media course, on a field trip.

"You said," I can already hear you say, "you said Anthropology is the study of people and cultures and stuff. Why are you on this field trip to this (admittedly very exciting) vegetated shingle spit that no one lives on??"

Because, dear readers, because I have not told you all. Throughout the three major wars of the 20th century, Orfordness was the British military's testing ground and engineering facility. The British army worked on radar there during WWI, and on the atomic bomb during WWII. The Cold War saw more nuclear research, for decades, Orfordness was the hub of Britain's military technologies.

Oh, yes. Locals call the spit "the island." It's not geographically correct, but since local knowledge trumps all, it is correct to call Orfordness "the island." And after the Cold War, the military abandoned the island, taking all their records with them, and leaving just their buildings and rubbish behind. 

 Surprisingly, the National Trust purchased Orfordness. The National Trust is a non-profit organisation that mostly preserves and looks after stately homes and large former aristocratic estate lands. They are very well-known for keeping pretty grounds, lovely for a picnic, and keeping beautiful old houses in their intended condition. Anyone can go to National Trust properties, and if you're a member, it's cheaper or free or something.

They are a preserving organisation, they are the preserving angels.

But the military had left no record of what the buildings on Orfordness were used for, or how. No records of which rooms were offices and which were testing facilities. Why are those holes in the wall? No one really knows.

And the National Trust was faced with a strange problem: how can you preserve something without knowing what it looked like before you got there, what it was supposed to look like, and what it was used for? How many people used it? There are so many questions, and mostly only speculation to fill the gap.

So, the National Trust took a bold move and decided not to preserve it. They would let all the buildings fall apart and decay, because trying to preserve them would be pointless. Orfordness is a tiny city abandoned by people, and the National Trust are mostly just letting nature break it down. One National Trust employee sleeps on the island every so often, but no one lives there.

One of the buildings, Cobra Mist, is doing better than the others, because up until midnight Saturday March 26, Cobra Mist housed a BBC World Service Transmitter. There's a whole staff of engineers who work there everyday, so Cobra Mist is not really decaying yet. The World Service Transmitter was shut down due to cuts, and the switch was flicked, heartbreakingly, the weekend I was there.

The equipment that controls the transmitter is beautiful, old 70s-looking stuff, schematics seemingly drawn straight onto them.

 This is one of my favourite photos from the entire trip.

A coursemate, Lee Gallagher, got a recording of it the evening before shut off.
Lee does lots of sound recording, especially surreptitious stuff around Manchester. He's a lovely guy, but he doesn't have a blog or podcast or website or pretty much any sort of internet presence, so if you're interested in getting more information about Lee and any of his recording, let me know. I'll get you in touch.

Cobra Mist is a giant bunker of a building, up on stilts filled with unused rooms. Some of these rooms have no windows, some have airlocks. Some have inexplicable lists drawn in chalk on the walls. We don't know why.

This room was completely light tight. I had to use a flash to get this shot.

Bits of rubbish line the halls, and there's no real telling how long it's been there.

We stayed overnight on the island, and spent the next day in blistering cold wind, with our cameras and our sound recorders, documenting in sound and image the abandoned sites of Orfordness, the crumbling buildings. The island was inhospitable that day, you truly felt that no one was supposed to be here.

The island is eerie. There's gray pebbles and grey sky, and everywhere you look, everything's collapsing. No one lives here. It's a rare place for England. Once settled, it doesn't seem like much gets abandoned here.

We walked around, trying to record something other than the wind, and something other than ourselves. The thing about Orfordness is... there's only the sound of the wind and the water washing against the shingle. The only other sounds we recorded were sounds we made, throwing rocks against walls, or singing in dark damp concrete bunkers, our voices echoing, arguing with other echoes.

I'm still not clear on how this particular project was anthropological. I think there are a lot of ways that sound can be used in anthropology. But because this place is so empty, so desolate, so left behind by people, recording sounds of it don't appear to be any more meaningful than sounds of wind and water anywhere. And if we're interested in documenting the fact that this place has been abandoned, then we shouldn't be recording sounds that we make. We should just record the silence and waves and wind. I don't know that the echoes of stones thrown at a concrete wall  tell me anything about how people lived here or what this place was for or what it means to anyone now.

Regardless, I'm glad I went on this fieldtrip. Of course, we had a great time there, cooking dinner together and playing pictionary and hangman. We laughed and more than a few of us were completely flummoxed by the idea of recording wind. We had a good time, and we saw something few get to see.

I'm glad I've been to Orfordness. The place is so strange, mostly because you can tell it must have once been full of life. There was a time when Orfordness was the place to be. Hundreds of engineers, blowing things up, testing bombs, maybe blissfully unaware of the effects of radioactive material on human bodies. There must have been a bar, a curry house. It must have been one of the most lively places in Britain. And it wasn't that long ago.

When we were there, though, it was anything but carefree. These buildings are falling apart moment-by-moment, so they're dangerous to walk in. And the National Trust folks told us not to touch or pick up anything on the island. "This is the kind of place where, something might look like it's tar," they said, "We don't know if it's tar." Everything here could be radioactive, tainted with depleted uranium. There's just no telling.

Some things in these buildings look so twisted and tortured, you can't imagine nature alone has done this. But why would the military have done this? And why does no one still know?

Even though this is a National Trust property, they don't let everyone onto these parts of the island. We were there under the auspices of our professor, Rupert Cox, and his friend Louise Wilson, a sound artist, who was commissioned to produce artwork about Orfordness, and she joined our fieldtrip, as an advisor. Her work A Record of Fear is all about the island. Because of them, we had access to the dangerous wilderness of Orfordness.

I don't use that word lightly. Jackrabbits have taken over this island, they hopped madly away every time we stepped in a building.

This place is filled with mystery. Suffused with intrigue. What on earth were they doing? Did this building ever have a roof? We know that in some rooms they were vibrating the bombs, to see how much they could be shaken without spontaneously detonating. Some rooms seemed to be centrifuges. Other rooms had no handles on the outside, so you couldn't accidentally walk into one. The big secrets must have been there.

A de-commissioned nuclear bomb lies in a small museum dedicated to the island's history.

And everywhere, there are remnants of the past to remind you: you really shouldn't be here. You're intruding on the island. No one is supposed to be here.

And the more I think about this lonely island with its falling buildings, pregnant with secrets, the more I think that nerdy joke is a little bit apt. Because of what people did here, people are not supposed to be here now. And people are not here now. It's hard to imagine any one really living on Orfordness these days, with its bleak gray shingle, bleak gray concrete rubble, bleak gray sky and sinister black water. Orfordness today really is a fortress of solitude. Not the safe place of some Cold War-era superhero, whose own reputation as saviour is crumbling every moment. This place is past all that. Rather, it's a fortress that protects its own solitude, to keep its secrets safely held within its own fracturing structures.