Archive for April, 2013

Last call 2013

April 30, 2013 1 comment



Places are now limited on my main remaining events for this year:
: my ‘turn’ at the Swindon Festival of Literature, talking about cathedrals and history, in Christ Church, Swindon next Tuesday 7 May at 7.30pm. Tickets £6, £5 concessions, from 01793 46645;
: residential tours of East Anglia, based in the lovely Villiers Park, just outside Cambridge; a series of delicious/fascinating buildings and extraordinary historical stories; the food’s fantastic, too! Medieval Churches, Monasteries &
Cathedrals of the Fenlands
runs from Friday 21-Sunday 23 June 2013;
Medieval Cambridge: History & Architecture runs
Friday 26 – Sunday 27 July. £360 and £345 respectively; for further details and bookings contact Christine Hall at Villiers Park, 01223 872809;
: detailed dayschools, including tour, on Salisbury cathedral and Tewkesbury abbey, running on 13 July and 21 September. Costs are kept low and reduced according to the number of participants; to book contact Liz Cooper,
: the full Monty: an eight-day residential tour of the cathedrals of England, run by the brand-leaders in the field of luxury cultural tours, Martin Randall Travel. 2-10 October 2013; a snip (but seriously, accomodation etc will be first class) at £2520. 0208 742 3355;

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Thatcher’s landscapes II: The urban prehistorian

April 25, 2013 Leave a comment
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Landscapes of Thatcherism

April 17, 2013 4 comments

Royal Academy, London, sometime in 1985: a tense-looking guard suddenly approaches me and tries to usher me out of the room in which I stand. I prevaricate, and seconds later in walk a phalanx of men in black suits at the middle of which is a tiny, fragile-looking woman in a blue dress.

The eastern Crimea, sometime in 1941: Joseph Beuys, downed Luftwaffe pilot, is rescued by Tartar tribesmen and wrapped in animal fat and felt to be kept alive.

He later builds a career out of art installations, colossal structures of fat and felt.

For a few brief moments, then, it was just me, Maggie and Joseph Beuys. We stare blank eyed at each other and at the cathedral-like Tartar presences that fill the room, then everything moves on. Ding dong.

The daily commute, 1985-9: six miles by bicycle, through east Hackney, past Limehouse, down the Isle of Dogs, through the Greenwich tunnel to east Greenwich. No dome yet; Brunel’s tunnels not yet in fashion for film shoots; just a shattered wasteland of forgotten industries. Witness to strange new landscapes: Peabody estates and abandoned Victorian chapels overshadowed by the spires of late capitalism, as if the city had relocated east to a new redoubt, its moats the docks of lost empires.


Frank L. Baum’s polical allegory of the 1890s, recast into the fruit of a Kansas hurricane, recast into a text received around lunchtime on 17 April 2013, redolent of a crowd of dancing Munchkins, and yet whose meaning I understand instantly. Wizard.

Central London, 1990: a carnival atmosphere; like a massive, endless street party of protest. The first demo I have ever been on at which middle England is as massively represented as the more obvious lefties.  I note a group of well-dressed men, holding a placard simply reading, ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’.  The next day, I return to witness the way in which riot recasts landscapes: upturned paving slabs in Trafalgar Square, a smoke-blackened building, events as sudden and violent as a chemical reaction, unpresaged in their occurence, rapid in their impact, scars time-consuming to heal.

A neo-Renaissance chateaux in Barnsley, north Yorkshire, 1993:  lit in an upper window, the shining half-bald pate of a spent force, Arthur Scargill in his castle, the proud, late Victorian NUM offices, holding forth at some committee meeting, backlit in neon.

Brighton, Sussex, 1984. An early morning trip, to witness another changed place, another Victorian pile: the great gash that appeared in the upper parts of the Grand Hotel the night before. Salt and carbon fill the air. An eerie silence.

Hong Kong, 1985: glimpsed across the barbed wire, the shining spires of Shenzen: free market experiment on China’s edge, the transnational, the global, the wealth-creating, blinking and dumbfounded in the grey light, across the border. A pale imitation of the free market. For now.

Wiltshire, 1984: after driving for seemingly hours through a landscape of flares and explosions and heavy machinery, the greatt Plain gripped by work-outs for the cold war, we reach Stonehenge. The sarsens of Fyfield and the bluestones of Pembroke, ringed again with barbed wire: outside, in the beanfield, a medieval/psychedelic vision: semi-permanent structures selling Cocaine, bands set up on soap boxes, a small handmade town.  The freeest, most unregulated of markets; the following year, the enemy within.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road. Streets Paved with Gold. Loadsamoney.

Nottinghamshire, 1986: Eastwood, birthplace of D. H. Lawrence, in the Nottinghamshire coalfields; camped out beneath slag heaps being rapidly planted and landscaped; near to the industrial offices being remade a into a museum of the suddenly-vanished past; organising community events, where the Wakes were held, beneath the pitheads that have evaporated. A silver band, uprooted. Older locals, bemoaning the celebration of this man who made money writing about their sex lives; England’s fault line, of Civil War and Miner’s Strike and north and south, all around us, within miles of the south bank of the Trent.


1989. Five fragments of a vanished Wall, still retaining traces of spray painted grafitti, flung to the grand by the pickaxes of freedom. Crossing through Checkpoint Charlie in 1985, after six months in a universe shaped by Lenin, Stalin and Mao, blinking like a medieval peasant glimpsing a cathedral, unable to sleep by the shock of electricity, of variant humanities, of synthesizers blaring from all-night bars, of energy packed into this tiny statelet of the east, Shenzhen reversed in time, Docklands inside out.

Bradford, late 1980s. A ring-road sprouting strange things: shops in massive hangars, asphalt access, orbital no-places among the brick terraces and enormous hulks of the mills. Out of town, out of mind.

Imagined landscapes: the ding-dong jingle-jangle urban romanticism of the no-place satellite town, the bare violence of the city centre, fuelling a thousand unregulated 7 inchers and Peel sessions, a bewildering and infinite and inspiring landscape of resltess grassroots experiment; a new layer of mythologies for the story-laden places of Britain. Bands don’t play no more: too much fighting on the dancefloor. Under the iron bridge we kissed: and though I ended up with sore lips. To the centre of the city where all hope sank waiting for you. A hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts. Coventry, Manchester (so much to answer for), Macclesfield, Woking (‘… Dublin/Dundee/Humberside’). Lie dreams of casino souls. I’m in love with Maggie T. Diving for dear life, when they could be diving for pearls.

Devon, 1981: a pub special night for the Royal Wedding; packed public beer full of rugby players in dresses. The current no. 1, Ghost Town, on repeat.  

The walk from Aldgate to Spitalfields: the walk home/the walk to work, c.1989. The all-night burning of construction, a new Roman wall, Broadgate, dominating the horizon as it climbs inexorably up. The invisible boundary between City and Tower Hamlets, a line in the deserts of tarmac and brick., the wild East. Spitalfields market a wasteland in which people stand around braziers, burning pallets to keep warm. The Huguenot houses a sudden density of migration: alone with Rodinsky and the abandoned synagogue. The streets alive at Eid.

Alive indeed: nights spent living out, documenting the lives of the legions of homeless youth who have appeared in the last few years, where before the only people who lived on the streets where ‘down-and-outs. Long nights eking out a single coffee between a dozen of us in the Charing Cross Macdonalds.  Longer nights in doorways, begging, making a pound or two, often abused by strangers. People with fractured pasts, suddenly in the community.

Ashington, Northumberland, c.2000. Camping beneath the all night racket of the aliminium works. Nothing to eat that isn’t disgusting. A large town without a bookshop. Beers in the Working Men’s Club, where men in flatcaps sit and ritually keen nightly over that Thatcher woman. Seacoal slagheaps from which flames lick as the tide works its way in, soon to be cleared and landscaped, a heritage coast cleansed of its past. Far to the south, oligarchs buy manor houses, parallel lives of global capital.

Big ben falls silent; Michael of Canterbury dreams up St Stephen’s Undercroft. Occupy, stop the city, guildhall and Cruise. Pugin’s phallic clocktower, skyscraper dressed as Perp civic-imperial glory. The Eirene chapel at USAF Molesworth, beyond the wire-cutters, between the legs, keeping the peace. The snow falls on bender tents. Dong, Dong. And then the world changes. Again.



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Dandong/North Korea

April 14, 2013 2 comments

Few  landscapes on earth can be more presciently formed by their history than this borderland, much in the news lately. Crossing the border by train in winter, the river-ice thaws in mid crossing, as if marking the dotted line in a map between a state that is part of the present and one that is wilfully trapped in its own past. It’s all something of a reminder of my own (award-winning, or nearly so) published trip from China to North Korea… 


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