I reached into my coat sleeve and scratched – almost absent-mindedly – at my forearm. After a moment I was done and I pulled the sleeve back down and tight around my wrist, and cursing myself for not bringing my gloves out I pulled my collar tighter. A futile effort really, against the sub-zero temperature.
The train had got stuck in a deep snow drift some four miles outside of Wells. After nearly forty minutes sat in uncertainty, quietly muttering to no-one in particular, the driver announced that our only option was to walk to a level crossing some three-quarters of a mile down the line where a couple of buses would be waiting to take us into the city. So, we disembarked – jumping, clambering or – as was my case – being helped down from the carriages and into the snow. There were complaints of course – the cold makes people miserable and they’ll naturally direct that misery toward the railway operators – “Wrong kind of snow, my arse! Wrong kind of bloody management if you ask me.”, “Why can’t we just wait for another train?” (this made me smirk)…
Misery – if only they knew the meaning of the word.
So onwards we trudged, feet growing numb, wet trousers, luggage dragged along the track. “Couldn’t we just wait on the train until the track was clear? I’ve got sandwiches and at least it’s warm in there.” Stumbling over sleepers, crunching through the gravel, one or two fell in the deeper snow at the side of the track. I remember a time when if you didn’t get up quick enough a shot would ring out, your fellow travellers would gasp and mutter in shock, but any hesitation in their progress would be countered with sharp words, maybe the thrust of a rifle butt if you didn’t get the message straight away.
Feet numb with cold, breath seeming to freeze in the air, my thin coat unsuited to the biting winter winds. We were led down that line, huddling together as best we could, trying not to move too fast less we create enough space for the cold air to breach our weary, shabby ranks. We didn’t have far to go but that walk, that journey of a lifetime, seemed to take forever. Soon though our destination was in view. My young heart lifted a little knowing that we were nearer a chance for rest and some kind of shelter, but then sank again as the grey gate of the camp loomed into view through the sparse trees.
From time to time I fancy that I feel that number itching under my rough, dirty shirt sleeves. I could have had it removed many years ago but I prefer to keep it – my own personal memorial. Everything it stands for, my mother and father who died with it on their arms, could never be brought back by it’s erasure.
Thank goodness they’ve got the heating on in the bus. I think I’ll get a hot chocolate in Marks And Spencer though, before I go to my daughter’s.
A string of serendipitous – yet altogether innocuous – events lead me to take a wander last night, around the back streets of Shoreditch.
For those of you who don’t know, Shoreditch is the trendy part of town, the place where all the hipsters hang out. It’s full of overpriced bars and clubs, only a couple of which I’d be seen dead in, and it’s home to my least favourite pub venue in the whole world (The Macbeth (links to video – NSFW) on Hoxton street, which I loathe and avoid like the plague unless I’m carrying extra ammo or a band I like is putting on their own night there). For these reasons it’s an area I tend to avoid, other than passing through there on the way somewhere more interesting.
Except it DOES have an interesting side. Like much of Hackney (the borough in which it slouches arrogantly), it’s a haven for street artists. Take a stroll around there and you’ll find plenty of well placed pieces or varying quality, although most of it is rather cool. But the art was only a secondary objective, although it would be hard to avoid anyway.
Back in 1958, French Situationist Guy Debord described an activity whereby one takes a walk around an area of a town or city, not to have a breath of fresh air, or stretch of the legs, not even to ponder on its aesthetic beauty, but essentially to delve into the psyche of the city, to pick away at the layers that have built up over the decades, over the centuries, and most importantly to be lead on a journey, rather than to plan one out. A facet of psychogeography, it’s root activity even, that he called the derive, which simply translates into English as “drift”.
So, after listening to some vaguely esoteric hip hop, reading a few pages of a book from the library (Generation Hex) and catching an innocent remark on Radio 4 about shamanism, I put two and two and two together and decided to head out. Yes, the achingly hip streets of Shoreditch were calling, and it was a Saturday night.
A half hour bike ride saw me outside what used to be The Foundry – an arts and social centre in the heart of the area that’s recently been closed down to make way for a big shiny hotel where rich people can stay, because as we all know, people with money are more important than people with ideas and talent, right..? I locked up my bike and anxiously fingered the offering I’d brought for the spirits. an offering of spirits in fact. I was reluctant to part with the miniature of 18-year-old Glenfiddich which I had been looking forward to tasting, but after some rumination before leaving home, I’d come to understand that as it was all I had to offer, and as I really would rather not give it, it would be a most suitable gift. I crossed over the road and entered the region of the threshold – a point at which the boundary becomes a portal, just by an old drinking fountain outside a pizza restaurant. After lingering for a few minutes I spied my chance to act without getting too many odd looks, and asking the spirits guidance, protection and permission, gave the offering.
With an assurance that I was welcome I stepped out of one world into another, which seemed to be very much the same. I hadn’t expected vast swathes of reality to fall away, revealing an even more real other dimension, but I had expected a bit more than a faint tingle in the back of my head, and that might have just been because down the cold air. Still, I knew the area, I knew what it WAS capable of being. I’d taken that step many times before and felt the adrenalin increase in my bloodstream, felt my senses become more keen, felt as though I really was stepping from one world into another, but not this time. Had I done something wrong?
Afterwards I realised I had – I’d been there on a Saturday night before and felt it to be as dead as it felt now. I think that – quite wisely – the streets are left to the living for the big night of the week. The spirits stay huddled in their corners, maybe scowling and muttering at the drunk, boisterous bar hoppers and club goers. No wonder I sometimes feel an affinity with them!
Still, I walked on, along Paul Street towards my first target – a back street which I knew to be not only a secret little spot for some low-key street art, but that I also knew to be…well, to FEEL different. Maybe there’s something about it that draws people like myself to it, and maybe that same thing draws the likes of Ace, Omega and a number of other anonymous artists to paste and paint on the walls of the buildings that tower above this narrow street’s length. Of course, I notice the art and some of it is very cool, but it’s only a part of the journey. I was hoping for more.
Well, to cut a long story short…
There was nothing out of the ordinary, which for an area where to hear someone call out, “Who’s that handsome boy then?! C’mon sailor!” in camp sincerity (not directed at me) is pretty much par for the course, was quite disappointing. To be fair, I had no direct intent, no will behind my decision to go out, I just thought that there were enough prompts to make the trip worthwhile. In a way it was – I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, didn’t get anything from it, but I hardly felt the keen edge of the night slice into my mind as I had expected, as it had several times before. I knew the spirits were there, they just weren’t coming out. I kept my eyes and mind open, listening – or rather feeling – out for any pull in a certain direction, towards a certain object, maybe something to bring back as a totem, but nothing came. As I sat at the junction of Paul and Leonard Streets, quietly observing with all my senses, the rain became heavier. People passed by on their way to revel in the joy of being successful idiots (but that’s for another time), maybe not even noticing me, the temperature dropped a little more, a guy on a bike rode slowly by, only to come back the other way a few minutes later (probably a drug dealer), but the spirits were quiet. In my search for the real life of the area, all I could see were people who probably didn’t even know they were alive.
So what did I get, aside from wet and cold?
It did feel like a small step along The Path, but as an exercise in paying attention to my surroundings I didn’t really learn any more than I already practice, which is a fair amount anyway. I certainly wasn’t embraced by a world beyond my everyday reality and my journey was rather – as indeed was I – pedestrian. Imagine going to a restaurant you like, ordering the same dish you usually have, getting the same friendly waiter, but the wine you like with that meal is off. You try a different one at the sommelier’s suggestion but it’s not the same. The meal doesn’t come alive in the way it does with the 2006 Pinot Grigio you like, and maybe your waiter has a bad back so is a little slower and a little less amiable than usual, but the food’s good, really (you manage to just about convince yourself), it is good. You don’t really feel hard done by, you don’t feel cheated – you’ve eaten well enough and the bill is pleasing as always, but you can’t help feeling a tiny bit disappointed.
Next time I feel the urge to drift on a Saturday night, I’ll try to have somewhere less “Saturday night” in mind. It’ll do me good to add to my repertoire of psychogeographic perambulations anyway. I know Shoreditch’s neighbour, Clerkenwell is pretty cool at night, and probably less full of ordinary life too. But what ghosts it holds!
Now there’s a blog…
Oh, and for the record I don’t carry ammo or weapons, just a deadly arsenal of ways to run away.