Categories
Field Trip Found Art Happenstance I Remember Observation Psychogeography rag-pickings Signs and Signifiers Some Questions of the Drift

Two Hours in the Lang Toun

Two hours.

I have just dropped off a bunch of excited teenagers at Kirkcaldy Ice Rink (now rebadged as Fife Ice Arena) for the afternoon skating session. With too little time to return home and do anything meaningful, it seems like a good opportunity to start walking into the locality and see what draws the attention. I increasingly find that often the most interesting walks develop out of  the imposed time constraints of everyday life. Start from where you are and see where it leads.

Two hours.

But first, I’m standing in front of an ice palace from the late Art Deco era. Designed by Williamson and Hubbard in 1937, the softened edges, horizontal lines, ribbon windows and vertical, coloured detailing conjure up a period in time when form was equally important as function. Apparently, the original restaurant featured Parker-Knoll chairs, monogrammed cutlery and curtains designed by Dame Laura Knight. This afternoon, under a high sun, the contrast of vibrant colours and ice cream white offers an elegant counterpoint to what would no doubt be constructed today as a functional leisure shed.

I’m in Gallatown at the North end of the ‘Lang Toun’ of Kirkcaldy. Initially, thinking the name may have been derived from some form of recurring gala festivities, I subsequently find out that it is a derivation of Gallows Town. Apparently, due to it being the site of numerous public executions in medieval times.

Gala

Galla

Gallo

Gallow

Gallows

Originally a small village in its own right, Gallatown, along with its near neighbours Sinclairtown and Pathhead, were parts of Dysart before becoming annexed as part of Kirkcaldy in 1876.

Walking down the main, arterial road into Kirkcaldy, Rosslyn Street merges into St Clair street. A clue to the history of this area in the street names. A reminder of how all land is property and often concentrated in the hands of a few. Sinclairtown developed from the 1750s on the estate of the Earls of Rosslyn and derives from their family name St Clair. (Also owners of Rosslyn Chapel).

This whole area developed as the industrial end of Kirkcaldy. A place of nail manufacture in the seventeenth century and site of the ‘pin factory’ studied by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. Coal mining and power-loom weaving emerged in the mid eighteenth century and pottery manufacture in the early 1800s.

I walk past the entrance to Pottery Street but after a short walk down into what is now light industrial and residential buildings there appears to be little evidence of what once existed here. It is only on returning and approaching Rosslyn Street again that I notice a plinth in the grounds of a vet’s surgery.

The original site of the world famous Wemyss Ware pottery of Robert Heron and Son. The Chief Designer of the pottery was Karel Nekola from Bohemia, recruited by Robert Heron in 1882. A skilled, imaginative artist, he continued to work until his death in 1915. His sons Joseph and Carl also worked in the pottery. The original pottery closed during the Great Depression in 1930 and the rights to Wemyss Ware passed through several hands until Griselda Hill acquired and revived the name in the 1990s.

It is perhaps heartening to know that the spirit of the original pottery and the curious Wemyss cats continue to be tended by a veterinary practice.

Wemyss Ware cats. Public Domain image.

Walking further down the road above what is now the Happy Days Chinese Restaurant is a magnificent example of a Co-op bee skep. Presumably a former Co-operative Society building. Not quite as impressive as the magnificent trio in Leven but a fine reminder of the co-operative ideals of those Rochdale Pioneers.

On the other side of the road, a narrow path into a residential area.

Sun drawn cubist angles.

“Stewart Lod”.

I’m not sure where the boundary lines of Gallatown, Sinclairtown and Pathhead merge, but for these purposes it is a delight to encounter the colourful Puffins of Pathhead.

Behind is a Ladbrokes shop. A window of lurid coloured interpellation: Grab a Grand!; Win Free Machine Play Cash BoostGoal! Price Boost; Best Odds Guaranteed; £30 Free Bets on Your Mobile; Sunday, Now Open Longer.

Ladbrokes

Lad   Broke

Never a more aptly named chain designed to part people from their money. I don’t remember that many pearls of wisdom from my dad but one that sticks is that: “you never meet a poor bookie”.

On another wall close to the puffins, a golden eagle takes flight ready to pounce on a small mouse. The disorienting sun perhaps allowing the mouse a respite today. Off it floats on the back of a golden orb.

You cannot walk down St Clair Street without noticing Rejects. A gargantuan store by any standards and a family owned Fife institution selling everything for the home in twelve departments. There is also something delightfully perverse about deciding to name your retail emporium Rejects. I’m not sure what the received wisdom on retail marketing is, but I suspect this breaks most of it. Rejects also houses a very fine cafe but with the clock ticking, I have to pass on that today.

This is the weekend before ‘The Beast from the East’ arrived in Scotland and I’m starting to feel the cold around my ears. However, the sun is strong, bright and warming as I take a moment to watch the swaying, skeletal trees. How they shift slightly out of phase with the moving shadow forest projected on the wall of the car park. A Steve Reich piece playing out in visual form.

 

On the corner of Commercial Street sits a curio from the days of the Kirkcaldy tram network. A Bundy Clock was used to monitor tram services to ensure that they ran on time and according to timetable. When the tram driver reached the designated terminus, they would insert a unique key into ‘the Bundy’ and the time would be recorded. The Bundy clock was patented in 1890 by Willard Le Grand Bundy and mass production of employee monitoring systems began. A practice that has had workers clocking in and out under surveillance ever since. Of course, technology advances and Bundy Time Systems still appear to be around.  Their wares now include ‘Fingertec Biometric Packages’, ‘Face ID’ and ‘Easy Clocking Time and Attendance Systems’.

Walking along Commercial Street reveals a mix of some very old buildings. largely, in various states of disrepair. However, the Spiritualist Church is looking bright and sprightly. Thursday Healing. All Welcome.

At the end of the road, The ‘A Listed’ Feuars Arms proclaims its Victorian lineage back to 1859. Impressive stained glass windows reflect a more modernist addition to the landscape in the fifteen story Ravens Craig flats built in 1964-65.

 

 

Sparkling in the sun like pink sponge fingers with frosted, glazed balconies. The image provides a jarring contrast to imagining why Flesh Wynd may have gotten its name.

Not too far away from the Ravens Craig complex is Ravenscraig Castle. Local folklore claims that John Buchan named his novel The Thirty-Nine Steps after the path that leads down by the side of the castle to Pathhead Sands. A similar claim relates to a set of steps in Broadstairs, where the final scenes of the novel take place. Both sets of stairs have more than thirty nine. However, Buchan’s father was a Free Church of Scotland minister and Buchan spent most of his formative years in Kirkcaldy. His novel Prester John opens with a scene on Pathhead Sands, with Kirkcaldy thinly disguised as Kirkcaple.

I’m becoming conscious of the time and need to start heading back towards the ice rink. I loop around and through what would once have been a colossal industrial area, dominated by the Nairn linoleum factory complex. Michael Nairn was initially involved in the weaving of ship’s sails but later entered into floor coverings. The original factory built at Pathhead, in 1847, was initially ridiculed and known locally as Nairn’s Folly. However, the venture proved a great success and by 1876, linoleum production had become a global industry centred on Kirkcaldy. The use of linseed oil in the production process was what gave the distinctive ‘queer-like smell’ highlighted in the poem The Boy in the Train written by Mary Campbell Smith in 1913:

I’ll sune be ringin ma Gran’ ma’s bell,

She’ll cry, “Come ben my laddie”

For I ken mysel’ by that queer-like smell

That the next stop’s Kirkcaddy!’

Most of the industrial complex has now gone but one operational factory unit remains, sitting in the vast empty space like some remnant from an imagined post-Packard Detroit.  The factory is clearly still productive as the distinctive, and not unpleasant, sweet smell is clearly discernible in the air. Perhaps a bit more localised these days rather than enveloping the entire town.

I meander through some of the side streets back towards the ice rink and whilst many buildings are in disarray, the sun is bringing out the best in them.  An old industrial fence morphs into beautiful, striped, colour field, minimalism.

A ‘found’ Gerhard Richter decays on an old wooden board.

An abstract landscape, framed in brick under a painted sky, sits in the alcove of a boarded up window. (Perhaps a found Howard Hodgkin, thanks to Hamer the Framer, added 07.04.2018):

Whilst a short history of building is revealed in an industrial assemblage of brick, stone, concrete and metal:

In dappled sunlight, a typographical erratic.

I am indebted to fellow travellers Laurence Mitchell and Alan Nance for the idea of the cultural erratic. This originally arose from a comment by Alan regarding Laurence’s piece  on re-purposed Kyrgyzstan railway wagons.  Alan’s comment is worth noting in full:

To use a landscape-related term, it strikes me that these wagons are like cultural (as opposed to glacial) erratics, whose presence, through interpretation, can tell us something about the forces and processes that shaped the place in which they are located).

It’s a great expression and in this particular instance, I like how EAST FIFE has somehow survived the weathering process, much like a glacial erratic left behind.

Another abandoned looking building draws the eye, due to the panel above the door:

Langtoun Aquarists Pondkeepers Group. Another cultural erratic? Is that a fish on the door blowing a bubble?

Sadly, I can’t spend any more time pottering around and hoof it back quickly to the ice rink. So quick that I’ve a few more minutes to spare before the skating finishes. I walk round by a mysterious, mausoleum looking structure. Some form of sub station? Or perhaps a sealed vault storing all the forgotten sounds, smells and memories of Gallows Town?

Behind the vault are some of what feel like the oldest buildings I’ve seen today. The narrow passage of School Lane. Just enough Sunlight leaking down the walls to outline a set of strange material interventions close to the ground. Portals of exit or entry?

And back to the car park just in time to catch the ice rink crowd spilling out into the sunshine. The tired teenage skaters, pile into the car and I listen to their stories of careering around the chilled interior of the ice palace.

Two hours.

Oh and almost forgot. Wasn’t particularly looking for it, but it’s always good to find it …

≈≈≈

This walk took place on Saturday 24th February, 2018.

Now playing: Steve Reich – Violin Phase

Categories
I Remember Observation Poetry rag-pickings Signs and Signifiers

Through the White World

Island of residual

It was only for a few days. The immediate sensory world became a continuum of white and grey. A familiar world made strange.  Almost all colour, leached from the field of vision and imagination.

White

Grey

Monochrome

By coincidence, Han Kang’s The White Book is on the reading pile. Other texts from the white world  call from the bookshelf: Peter Davidson’s The Idea of North; Nancy Campbell’s Disko Bay; Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams; the ‘white day’ in Sophie Calle’s ‘Chromatic Diet’ from Double Game.

Watching the swirling snow outside, an incongruous memory of sitting on a baking hot bus travelling from London to Barcelona. I was reading Kenneth White’s travels in Labrador recounted in The Blue Road. I read blue but felt the white world. As if holding a cooling block of ice in my hands as the Spanish sun burnt through the window.

The Idea of White

Encounters at the White Edge

White Dreams

White Food

White in the White World

 

Mika, our cat, sits on my knee. A rush of grey flecked, white fur becomes a tactile landscape of frozen ice, glaciers and crevasses. The white world.




Then, almost as suddenly as it arrived, the thaw began. More and more of the temporary, subnivean world revealing itself each day. Colour returning. Fresh, vibrant, as if newly painted. The last ice crystals, sprinkled on living worlds of green.

Islands of residual reverse. White dissolves.

To see a new history of colour in the silent stories of the old weathered walls.

Formed

Quarried

Placed

Patched

The eternal cycles continue …

≈≈≈

Now playing: Thomas Köner – Nuuk

Categories
Found Art Happenstance I Remember Language of Objects Observation Poetry Psychogeography rag-pickings Signs and Signifiers

The Surface is a Zone of Encounter (An Assemblage)

I think that light makes material space … light is really the primary form of our habitation and makes surfaces come to life.

The surface holds what we project into it. It is an active site of exchange between subject and object.

Giuliana Bruno

 

Two sides of the border

Cleaved

Landscape

    of mark making

 

 

———->

Lines of travel

<———-

 

 

Whilst waiting

eye follows line

of divide    –  lit

spill      on surface

softening shapes

of solid geometry

 

 

Celestial movement in concrete

Cascade of perseids?

Constellations and star signs?

 

 

Whorl

Eye

Portal

 

 

From the atlas of green worlds and frozen seas

 

 

From the atlas of mutant landscapes

(Oracle?)

 

 

Where the striped fish, with no name, shoal in the ocean of lambent light

 

 

Emerging language: futurescape

(in process)

 

 

The point at which surface folds

New ecological imaginaries

Ambivalence of the non-human world

 

 

When the colour & texture of the sky triggers a memory of James Turrell in the Museu Colecção Berardo, Lisbon.

 

Dream:

High sun burns over thin snow. The very last snowball harvest.

 

New languages of underfoot

 

 

Spectrum edge

Light cuts

 

 

Interiors of darkness

Draped, infolding

 

.

Out of darkness

a huddle of shadows

settle to stillness

.

From the silence

quiet violence

of a whispered judgement

.

.

Material Surface / Mental Space

Optic / Haptic

Interior / Exterior

Local / Global

Past / Present

Present / Future

Public / Private

Found / Lost

≈≈≈

Now playing: Lawrence English – ‘A Surface for Everything’ from A Colour for Autumn.

Reference:

Giuliana Bruno,  Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Photographs from:  Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, Koganei Park, Koganei, Tokyo; Meiji Shrine, Tokyo; Rosyth Station; Inverkeithing Station; Grounds of The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; Abandoned railway carriage, Turnhouse Road, Edinburgh; Fife Coastal Path; Museu Colecção Berardo; Rosyth Churchyard; Lisbon; South Bridge, Edinburgh; Shinjuku, Tokyo; House Interior; Koganei, Tokyo.

Categories
Encounters Field Trip Folk-Lore Found Art Happenstance I Remember Observation Poetry Psychogeography Quote rag-pickings Signs and Signifiers Some Questions of the Drift Sounds of Spaces and Places Symbol Uncategorized

From Hill to Sea – Book Update

DSCN2629-001

DSCN2631

From Hill to Sea: Dispatches from the Fife Psychogeographical Collective, 2010 – 2014 is published by Bread and Circuses Publishing.

After a successful launch at the Edinburgh Independent & Radical Book Fair, copies of the book are now available from Word Power bookshop in Edinburgh and by mail order. See the Publications page here.

Categories
Field Trip I Remember Psychogeography

Moby Dick, Laurie Anderson and The King’s Cellar, Limekilns.

The book is so modern, it’s insane. Melville uses all these voices — historian, naturalist, botanist, lawyer, dreamer, obsessive librarian. His jump-cut style is truly contemporary.

Laurie Anderson on Moby Dick 

November 1999

The métro pulls in to Bobigny Pablo-Picasso in the North Eastern suburbs of Paris. Walking out on to Boulevard Maurice Thorez and up Boulevard Lénine, it is apparent that this is a world apart from the Haussmanised elegance left behind around forty minutes ago. Breaking free of the tourist flocks on the Champs-Élysées, I had descended into the subterranean belly of Charles de Gaulle Etoile to meet the familiar smell of the chthonic underworld and the squeals, clangs and clatters of the metallic worms burrowing through the entrails of the city. Doors explode open at each métro stop to displace and gorge on the huddles and tentacles of drifting humans in transit.

i            t

n            i

t            s

r            n

a            a

n            r

s            t

i            n

t            i

Up and down, to and from, the everyday life possibilities occurring directly overhead: Ternes > Courcelles > Monceau > Villiers > Rome > Place de Clichy > Blanche > Pigalle > Anvers > Barbès–Rochechouart > La Chapelle > Stalingrad >…

A change at Jaurès to pick up line 5 and soon it’s an ascent, emerging blinking into bright daylight and this different world.  Here, the streets are named after artists and communist revolutionaries and the buildings remind me of the Scottish New Towns: stark, brutalist and functional.  Consulting my notebook from the time I can see a handwritten scrawl:

Glenrothes!

The town where I grew up appears to have relocated to the Paris suburbs.

Bobigny - Prefecture Building
Bobigny – Prefecture Building
Fife Council Offices - Glenrothes
Fife Council Headquarters – Glenrothes

I was in Bobigny for the Festival d’Automne and heading to the MC93 Cultural Centre to see Laurie Anderson performing her ‘multi-media’ theatrical work Songs and Stories From Moby-Dick. Not a wholly accurate title as the piece is more of a meditation on Melville and what that book means to her. It was a fabulous experience to witness. The familiar Anderson performance tropes of expansive and existential themes, constructed instruments, minimal gestures and laconic storytelling were all brought to the fore. It certainly convinced me that there was more to this book than Ahab and his crew chasing a big fish. (ok mammal).

Laurie Anderson

Then I read [Moby Dick] again. And it was a complete revelation. Encyclopedic in scope, the book moved through ideas about history, philosophy, science, religion, and the natural world towards Melville’s complex and dark conclusions about the meaning of life, fear, and obsession. Being a somewhat dark person myself, I fell in love with the idea that the mysterious thing you look for your whole life will eventually eat you alive… [1]

For Anderson, Americans of her century and Melville’s share certain unmistakable similarities: they are obsessive, technological, voluble and in search of the transcendental,” she writes in the show’s notes. It is this latter aspect — the meaning of life — which is the focus of “Songs and Stories,” as Anderson asks Americans today, as Melville did in his lifetime: “What do you do when you no longer believe in the things that have driven you? How do you go on?” [2]

Up until that day I had managed to avoid reading Moby Dick. Walking back to the metro, I decided to rectify that and subsequently did.  A copy now resides in the ‘hallowed’ section of the FPC library and is never too far from reach.  There was also the strange delight of discovering some references to Fife in the book and a recent encounter with a building in the West Fife village of Limekilns caused me to search these out once again.

≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈

A Kirkcaldy Whaler

Unlike a merchant vessel going from

point A > >  > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > >  to point B,

a whaling ship is prowling,

z   i   g   z

                                                                                    a

                                                                              g

                                                                         g

                                                                                 i

                                                                                       n

                                                                                              g

 looking for prey.

≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈

Kings Cellar

May 2013

The King’s Cellar, as it is known today sits in the village of Limekilns just west of Rosyth. A more appropriate name would be “The Monk’s Cellar” as the original building is believed to have been built by and for the monks of Dunfermline Abbey. The earliest official record of the building dates back to 1362, although the monks owned the surrounding Gellet lands as early as 1089 and it is believed that they used the “Vout” or “Vault” for storing wine and as a clearing house for monastic supplies brought in by sea.  It is not clear when the building became known as the King’s Cellar but is likely to be following the dissolution of the monasteries when it was no doubt appropriated by the Crown. 

Today it almost appears as if the building is being sucked into the ground with the bottom windows almost at ground level.

Kings Cellar I

High up in the trees

to the rear of the cellar

a buzzard (?)

silent sentinel

bearing witness

observing our every move

as has always been done

Buzzard (?) Limekilns

CIMG2208

The stone above the door is misleading as it bears the arms of the Pitcairn family and the date, 1581. Pitcairn owned part of Limekilns and was the King’s private secretary and Commendator of Dunfermline. He lived in Limekilns and died in 1584, being buried in Dunfermline Abbey. The stone was transferred from his house.

Over the past 500 years the building has had parts of it rebuilt and adapted including the roof which was originally thatched. The building has been used as a wine cellar, storehouse, school, library, Episcopal Church in World War I, an air raid shelter in World War II. It is now used as a masonic lodge linked to the Bruce family of Robert the Bruce and the Elgin Marbles. A local belief exists that a secret underground tunnel connects the Cellar and the Palace at Dunfermline 4 miles away.

So what could be the connection of this building with Moby Dick?

 Porpoises, indeed, are to this day considered fine eating. The meat is made into balls about the size of billiard balls, and being well seasoned and spiced might be taken for turtle-balls or veal balls. The old monks of Dunfermline were very fond of them. They had a great porpoise grant from the crown.

From Chapter 65 of Moby Dick – The Whale as a Dish.

Is it too fanciful to imagine that this is the building where the porpoises would be landed for the old monks of Dunfermline?

Melville also quotes from Sibbald’s Fife and Kinross in the first few pages of Moby Dick:

“Several whales have come in upon this coast (Fife). Anno 1652, one eighty feet in length of the whale-bone kind came in, which (as I was informed), besides a vast quantity of oil, did afford 500 weight of baleen. The jaws of it stand for a gate in the garden of Pitfirren.”

From Moby Dick EXTRACTS (Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian)

The reference to Pitfirren certainly refers to this locality and is now known as Pitfirrane, located just North West of Limekilns.  I decided to have a look at Sibbald’s original text which Melville used and discovered that the immediately preceding passage reads:

“There is a vast fond of small coal in the lands, which is carried to the port of Lyme Kills, belonging to Pitfirren […] it is well provided with coal-yards and cellars. Several whales have come in upon this coast…”

Had Melville used the longer quote from Sibbald, Limekilns (as spelt today) would be mentioned in the book with a reference to cellars, albeit not the King’s Cellar specifically.

There are a couple of other whaling references in Sibbald:

“The monks of Dunfermline had a grant from Malcolm IV of all the heads of a species of whale that should be caught in the Firth of Forth, (Scottwattre) but his Majesty reserved the most dainty bit to himself, viz. the tongue. It is curious to remark the revolutions of fashion in the article of eatables.”

(Sibbald p. 116)

“There are several whales which haunt the Firth of Forth, which have fins or horny plates in the upper jaw, and most of them have spouts in their head; some of these are above seventy foot long, and some less: one of these with horny plates was stranded near to Bruntisland, (sic) which had no spout, but two nostrils like these of a horse. These whales with horny plates differ in the form of their snout, and in the number and form of their fins”.

(Sibbald p. 117)

Two small paragraphs that offer a glimpse of a time passed, or has it? The privileges of royalty and the landed gentry arguably continue largely unabated and the non human species of the globe decline to the point of extinction at the hands of the human actor.

There are many voices of Melville present in Moby Dick but one of them is clearly alerting  humankind to pay attention and consider the consequences of potential ecological catastrophes arising from the lavish plunder of the natural world.

June 2013

Whilst out research is not conclusive by any means, we place a small photograph of Melville under the stones in front of the King’s Cellar to secure the linkage in our own mind. When we pass this building in future, if nothing else, we will be reminded of Melville, Moby Dick and the King with a taste for cetacean tongues.  And each time we see a copy of that encyclopedic text – Moby Dick – we will think of this small building in a West Fife village and of course Laurie Anderson who cast the line in our direction.

Now Playing: Laurie Anderson – Life on a String

[1] Horsley

[2] Grogan

References:

Norman Fotheringham, The Story of Limekilns (Charlestown: Charlestown Lime Heritage Trust, 1997).

Molly Grogan, ‘Laurie Anderson’s Songs and Stories’, Paris Voice, November 1999.

Carter B. Horsley, ‘Songs and Stories from Moby Dick’, The City Review, 5th October 1999.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick or The Whale (New York: Penguin Classics Edition, 1992).

Sir Robert Sibbald M. D., The History Ancient and Modern of the Sherrifdoms of Fife and Kinross (Cupar, Fife: R. Tullis, 1803).

Mike Zwerin, ‘Laurie Anderson Grapples with Melville’s Ghost’ The New York Times 2nd December 1999.

Categories
Field Trip Happenstance I Remember Observation Psychogeography Sounds of Spaces and Places

The Firebugs of Kreuzberg

Kreuzberg Graffiti 1

Retain your memories
but détourn them
so that they correspond with your era.

Asger Jorn

We are in Berlin travelling on the U-Bahn to Kottbusser Tor in Kreuzberg. It is a gloriously warm April morning with fists of sunlight starting to punch through the clouds. From the elevated train tracks we can survey the sweeping spread of the city below. In the foreground, a graffiti inscribed, cubist assemblage written on to the earth. “How do they manage to get up there to paint it? asks R, pointing to a 3-D effect trompe l’oeil covering the entire gable end of a tall building. A and I marvel at the scale and ambition. An exploding riot of colour and illusion.  We both shrug our shoulders…

I had been in Kreuzberg the previous evening at a gig in the HAU 2 theatre complex. (As an aside, I was delighted to discover later that this building was the original site of the Zodiak Free Arts Lab formed by Conrad Schnitzler, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Boris Schaak in 1968. More on this below if interested. (1)).  I didn’t have much time to stroll around the streets beforehand but picked up a little of the night ambiance. Clearly the zest to inscribe almost any available surface with graffiti and street art was alive and well.  I realised that my previous visit to Berlin had been when the Wall was still standing and  Kreuzberg was the beating heart of a chaotic, edgy, alternative radicalism.  An enclave of squatters, artists and musicians, living cheek by jowl with the, largely Turkish, immigrant population.  At the time it felt like some bunkered interzone within the island of Berlin. A city trapped and adrift in topography, history and cold war paranoia. Inter-railing around Europe, I remember having to scrape up the Deutschmarks to buy a ticket and visa to allow travel through the DDR from Hamburg.  Walking out of Zoo Station with a head full of Berlin tropes: Bowie, Iggy, Lou Reed and Christiane F.  I could imagine witnessing scenes of Blixa Bargeld and Nick Cave holding court in the bars of SO36 underneath the watch towers.  On reflection, a romanticised, pop-culture depiction of the city shaped more by the NME than by any history or guide-book.

Around twenty-five years later I’m walking out of Kottbusser Tor station with the family still carrying these ghosts of memory.  It feels a bit surreal to experience the bright sunshine and languid air of the street as we set off in search of the Turkish market down on the banks of the Landwehrkanal. We pass the grocery stores and a few cafes where groups of men  (and it is all men) are sitting outside sipping Turkish coffee and gossiping.  It’s only a short walk to the canal and it evidently becomes apparent that we have either got the day or our directions wrong. There is no sign of any Turkish market.  Perhaps Bowie, Iggy and Blixa can help guide us? Feed us a few signs? However, R is already off. A nine-year old is not going to hang around whilst our putative tour guides attempt to get their shit together.

Unburdened by worldly cares, unfettered by learning, free of ingrained habit, negligent of time, the child is open to the world.

Yi-Fu Tuan

Children are natural and consummate psychogeographers. They can  happily drift through any environment, urban or rural, seeking out and following the signs of place that speak to them. With the city as potential playground R, starts to saunter on ahead of us, leading the drift, although, of course, not aware or caring that this is what is happening.  We wander along the tree-lined canal path for a good stretch and apart from the dog shit, and occasional jogger, the city takes on an almost rural feel.  Bowie, Iggy and Blixa are struggling to keep up. I think they may have stopped for a fag. The sunlight is clearly not agreeing with them.

I could feel the interest of our spectral trio dissolve even further as we sat down on a bench to marvel at two magnificent white swans and a group of mallards bobbing on the canal.  “How do the swans keep so white in the city?” A pleasure boat chugs past and the gentle wake lip-lips against the canal sides. Our quiet reverie is broken when the larger swan rises out of the water, and extends its full wingspan. For a moment it looks as if the wingtips will almost touch either side of the canal.  A few strong beats and the swan takes to the air. We wonder where it can be heading and whether the birds flew freely between East and West when the Wall was up.

Against a riot of cubist, Kreuzberg colour
–   “Fuck Yuppies – Reclaim the Streets”
a white swan rises from the water
outstretched wings unfurling,
almost pushing
the canal walls apart.

We can feel ourselves being pulled into another city world as a ladybird lands on A’s arm. I love how ladybirds always look hand painted. After watching it run over her skin, it pauses to open its tiny wings as if basking in the sun. R lets it run on to her fingers and kneels down to reunite the hand daubed, smudge of colour with the greenery beneath the lime trees.  She discovers the bustling activities of an ant colony and we observe the  industry of the leaf carrying comrades, marching in their regimented lines – lugging, organising, creating.  Sucked in closer to the unfolding drama of this animistic, micro world, we start to notice other flecks of red and black moving amongst the earthy shades of leaf mould. They are not ladybirds.  We are looking at hordes of small insects that are completely unknown to us. Some scurry around alone, whilst others pile on top of each other to accumulate into little shuffling balls of red and black. Too absorbed in the moment, we ‘forget’ to take a picture of them.  It is only once we are home that we eventually manage to find an image and identify these mysterious little creatures as firebugs.  From now on they will be known as The Firebugs of Kreuzberg.

Firebug

Time has dissolved as we eventually head away from the canal and start to re-enter Kreuzberg street life. We start to notice the hum of cars again. A Mad Max biker type walks past with a tiny dog on a pink lead. The dog is sporting a bandanna. Our drift takes us up the entire length of Oranienstrasse, the main street of the district.  It is still pretty quiet in daylight and we pass the door of SO36, the club where Bowie and Iggy used to hang out and, by now, have probably once again, taken refuge. R has commandeered the camera and is now taking photographs, still drifting through a city more akin to Hayao Miyazaki’s animistic universe than my one populated with spectral ghosts. The signs are speaking:

The Détourned Red Bulls of Oranienstrasse

The Red Bulls of Kreuzberg

The Goddess and Protector of Oranienstrasse

Goddess of Kreuzberg

The Visitor (detail from the side of a parked van)

Lounging on Oranienstrasse

We eventually return full circle and ascend the steps back up to Kottbusser Tor station. Our quest to find Turkish markets, and gain enlightenment from Bowie, Iggy and Blixa has failed.  They have all remained spectral and elusive.  Our drift has pulled us into another dimension of Kreuzberg. One of canal paths, white swans, mallards, ants, and détourned red bulls.  Above all, we have discovered and witnessed something mysterious and new. The red and black insects that we now know as The Firebugs of Kreuzberg.

That’s all from the Berlin holiday. It’ll be back to Fife next. Possibly Cowdenbeath!

Now playing: Kluster – Klopfzeichen

♦ ♦

(1) HAU 2 and The Zodiak Free Arts Lab

I was excited to learn that, after a hiatus of twelve years, Keith Rowe, Oren Ambarchi, Christian Fennesz, Peter Rehberg (Pita) and Pimmon were reconvening their curiously named Afternoon Tea project for one night only in Kreuzberg. It was delightful happenstance to discover that this was happening on one of the nights of our holiday.  I headed down to the HAU 2 venue and certainly wasn’t disappointed. One long piece saw this stellar ensemble layer up a set of dark, fractured shards of glitch improv, punctuated with blankets of shimmering serenity. A deep, meditative, all embracing sound. An unfolding. Ambarchi sat almost motionless unleashing his trademark sonic  ‘depth charges’. The aural equivalent of watching and feeling a lava lamp. The bass resonance of the note entering through the feet and traveling up and out of the body.  It was also good to see Keith Rowe having to play in a much louder and busier sound environment than the last couple of times I’ve encountered him. Fennesz couldn’t help but attempt to excavate and instil some melodic fragments into the proceedings whilst Rehberg and Pimmon intervened with pincer movements of laptop noise assault. All in all a fabulous event to witness and experience in the dark, minimal space of HAU 2.

The happenstance of this event was further enhanced when I later discovered that HAU 2 was actually the original site of the Zodiak Free Arts Lab or Zodiac Club, formed by Conrad Schnitzler, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Boris Schaak in 1968. Whilst only open for a few months, the Zodiak was a melting pot where “freaks and avant-gardists of all stripes could enjoy live psychedelia, free jazz, free performance and freakout”. (A1). It was a space also directly responsible for the emergence of Kluster (Schnitzler/Roedelius/Moebius) and Tangerine Dream, at that time with Schnitzler and Klaus Schulz in the ranks.  This early  incarnation of the Tangs is light years away from the vapid new-age pap that they later embraced in the 1980s.

The first few Kluster albums were engineered by a young Conny Plank who brought his experience of working with Edgar Varese to give some shape and coherence to the brutalist improvised chaos of this embryonic kosmische music. With the subsequent exit of Schnitzler and a later name change to Cluster, the sound took on a softer edge and the recording of classic kosmische albums such as Cluster II, Zuckerzeit, Sowiesoso and Cluster & Eno. The Zodiak also hosted performances by, amongst others, Agitation Free, Ash Ra Tempel, Human Being, Peter Brotzmann and Alexander Von Schlippenbach.

I love it when buildings can reveal their embedded memories like this. From a few months activity, the ripples from the epicentre are still being felt.

(A1) Nikolaos Kotsopoulos (Ed), (2009), Krautrock: Cosmic Rock and It’s Legacy, (London: black dog publishing).

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