Categories
Field Trip Observation Poetry Psychogeography

When natural cycles turn, brutalist windows can dream of trees…

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a flower expresses itself by flowering, not by being labelled

Patrick Geddes

That blue

There – beyond the iris heads.

As if a grey tarpaulin

has been peeled back

across the eyeball of the sky.

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Spring light, a different light.

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Colours made strange,

as smears of white heat

dab at fold-gathered shadows.

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The spooling thread of a blackbird’s raga, weaves through a chitter-chatter tapestry of blue tit and sparrow song as we lie under the flowers, observing a line of marching ants. A posse of advance troops, jolted into collective industry after winter’s hibernation. Out, once again, to prospect and survey the land.

Here. Now. All of us. Feeling the natural cycles turn.

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Looking up to the sky from underneath the flowers.

An ant’s world view invoking vague memories of Land of the Giants, and of this place before the flowers arrived.

Across the road, jump the fence and head towards what turns out to be a picture frame.

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Walking into the frame and down an avenue of young trees, we are lured by the vanishing point of reflecting silver.

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Flocks of daffodils gather around the rotunda, a yellow flecked congregation. Heads nodding, as if worshipping the filigree forms of a newly descended alien god. Bringer of light and heat.

A turn into mature woodland and a network of tracks and paths. A sense of water running close-by but which we cannot see  – yet. Tree animism.

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You will have to move closer,

to hear,

the guttural whispers

of the tree maw

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With spring sunshine, woodland, birdsong and the sense of water, this feels like ‘the countryside’ but it doesn’t take long to be reminded how close we are to the centre of this New Town.  We look up at the polished concrete belly of transport entrails as the low thrum of traffic passes overhead.

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In the last photograph, on the left hand side, you can see what turns out to be a rather incongruous plinth nestling under the concrete flyover.  We discover that it is displaying a 16th century stone-carved coat of arms, of the Leslie family.  The stone originally came from an old building in the nearby policies (grounds) of Leslie House, the ancestral home of the Earls of Rothes. It bears the griffins and motto of the Leslie family: Grip Fast

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From Kinross, I came to Lessley, where I had a full view of the palace of Rothess, both inside and outside … The house is the glory of the place and indeed of the whole province of Fife.

Daniel Defoe, 1724

Sir Norman Leslie acquired Fythkil,  the original name of this parish, around 1282 and renamed it after the Rothes family lands in Aberdeenshire. The Leslies became the Earls of Rothes in 1457. The earliest evidence of a house on this site is 1667 which was destroyed by fire in December 1763. A much smaller house was subsequently built, supposedly restoring the least damaged Western side.

The Earls of Rothes, obviously didn’t Grip Fast enough as we soon alight on the ancestral home, now sealed off with iron spiked fencing. It’s not too difficult to find a way in to have a quick look. The building looks fairly structurally sound but is minus a roof and much of the interior, creating the effect of being able to see right through the facade to the other side.

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One part of the fabric that has clearly survived intact is the flagpole which we can see through various windows:

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In.

Spring light

No flags fly

To the left of the house are a tiered set of south-facing terraces, although now denuded of any plant life other than the carefully manicured grass. Like the grounds in front of the house it shows that some care and maintenance is obviously still taking place …

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Whilst, in the conservatory, the buddleia appears to be thriving:

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CIMG3326We are just about to scale the wall that will take us to the front of the house when we hear voices on the other side and decide to exit the grounds quietly by the way we came in.

We subsequently learn that the house had been acquired by Sir Robert Spencer Nairn in 1919 who, supposedly, as he saw the advancing development of the New Town, gifted it to the Church of Scotland in 1952 for use as an Eventide Home. After falling into disuse, the house was sold for property development in 2005. Little appears to have happened until December 2009 when an unexplained ‘raging inferno’ reduced the property to its present state.

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(c) Mike Brailsford

 ≈

We head down towards the River Leven, thinking of its flowing waters coursing through the Fife landscape from Loch Leven near Kinross all the way to joining the Firth of Forth at Leven.  What memory does this water hold? Of powering linen mills and the local paper mills of Tullis Russell and Smith Anderson. Of sustaining the tadpoles and sticklebacks in the pond where we used to peer into the depths searching for those tiny flickering tails.  The webbed feet of the white swans gliding through the water today.

Before heading down to the riverside, we stop to listen to the bridge. The wind plucked treble of the harp like strings:

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… and the deep base drones of the underside sound box. We expect the huge columnar legs to start lumbering forward at any time:

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As always, the eaves of the bridge have been tagged.

Power and capital, enabled The Leslie family to appropriate, name and tag these lands. Our graffiti artist(s) tag is of a more existentialist nature. “I am here, in this place”.

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Following the course of the river, this world becomes a little stranger when we encounter the hippos traversing their water hole:

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A familiar encounter in this town. If Proust had his madeleine to kick him into paroxysms of involuntary memory, then the image of a hippo should do the trick for anyone who grew up in this town.

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We Mean Something
(c) Douglas A McIntosh

It’s not just the hippos. It’s also the dinosaurs, henges, flying saucers, pipe tunnels, giant hands, the toadstools and other curios which all ‘do something’ to social space for those who stumble across them.

Two bin bags murmur in agreement as they huddle in the shade, underneath the clatter of skateboards, waiting for the sun to come around.

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Ascending the hill to the town centre, we are reminded that every place needs its temples

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And what would any New Town be without its Brutalist municipal buildings? Guaranteed to be derided as ‘plooks’, ‘carbuncles’ and in this case, contributing to its award as ‘the most dismal town in Britain 2009’.

Well, perhaps it’s all a matter of perspective and the warm fingers of spring weather but the buildings are looking far from dismal today.

Tactile, concrete carpets, frame frozen flight and light.

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Frozen flight – open sky

 

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The original Brutalist grey cube of Fife House with its newer postmodern counterpart. It has to be a grandfather clock?

Green detailing can soften even the most austere facade:

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Whilst brutalist windows, can dream of trees and sky

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Nearby, North facing Rothesay house hasn’t weathered quite as well.

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After a walk back down to the public park, with vistas to the Paps of Fife we almost return to our starting point. Layers of place intersecting with past present and future in the returning bright light of Spring.

We nod to the defenceless one as we pass.

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Comforted that the Good Samaritan is looking on from not too far away

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And, as we leave town, how can we not stop to take delight in the toadstools. Vibrant and colourful, they look as if they have just (re)emerged, stretching into the returning Spring light.

Their months quietly growing in winter darkness appear to have passed.

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 ≈

Now Playing: Motorpsycho – Behind the Sun.

Note:

The New Town is Glenrothes in Fife. Planned in the late 1940s as one of Scotland’s first post-second world war new towns, its original purpose was to house miners who were to work at a newly established state-of the-art coal mine, the Rothes Colliery. The mine never opened commercially and the town subsequently became an important part of Scotland’s emerging electronics industry ‘Silicon Glen’. It is now the administrative capital of Fife.

Glenrothes was the first town in the UK to appoint a town artist in 1968. This is now recognised as playing a significant role, both in a Scottish and in an international context, in helping to create the idea of art being a key factor in creating a sense of place. Two town artists, David Harding (1968–78) and Malcolm Roberston (1978–91), were employed supported by a number of assistants, including Stan Bonnar who created the hippos. A large variety of artworks and sculptures were created and are scattered throughout the town, some of which are shown above. David Harding went on to found the Department of Environmental Art at the Glasgow School of Art whose alumni include: Douglas Gordon, David Shrigley, Nathan Coley, Christine Borland and Martin Boyce.

References:

Daniel Defoe, (1724),  A Tour Through the Whole Islands of Great Britain, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1991 edition), (p.346).

Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland: Leslie House

RCAHMS, Canmore: Leslie House

Categories
Field Trip Folk-Lore Observation Poetry Psychogeography

Silverburn: in the flux and flow of place

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We are walking out, along the shoreline, from Leven towards Lundin Links. Coastal energies are in full flow, our field of vision filled with an excess of sand, sea and sky.

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In the distance, an intensity of white light appears to drift in the Firth of Forth like a frosted iceberg. The Bass Rock. Invisible threads loop in the conical forms of Berwick Law and the sacred hill of Largo Law. Three nodes of a triangle that collapse North and South; earth and water; land and sky. An energy field that pulls us into an expanded world. Bardic bird yells, brine on the tongue and buffeting sea breezes whip up folding white breakers that fizz over the sand.

We soon encounter the talisman lying in the dunes. It’s protective, synthetic membrane, perished long ago by wind and water.  Now crusted with sand and water-logged, it has transmuted into a living entity. Green tendrils sprout from the surface. It appears to be an auspicious omen, a process of alchemy worthy of the legendary Wizard of Balwearie, Michael Scot, (1175 – c.1232), reputed to have form in these parts.

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Local legend has it that Scot summoned his three imp familiars, Prig, Prim and Pricker to Largo Law with a view to levelling it. A sort of job creation scheme for hyper-active familiars. As they began to dig, Scot had a change of plan and the imps were hurriedly despatched to Kirkcaldy to make ropes out of sand. This was to assist Scot in his showdown with the devil on Kirkcaldy beach.  Scot appears to have triumphed in the encounter as evidenced by a local saying: “The devil’s dead and buried in Kirkcaldy”.  As a result of the ‘Kirkcaldy interruption’, only a single shovelful of earth was thrown from Largo Law to create the cairn of Norrie’s Law at the wonderfully named farm of Baldastard.  There are also local folk tales about an abundant goldmine that supposedly exists underneath Largo Law and that sheep have returned from grazing on the foothills with golden fleeces.

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Giant stepping-stones. Largo Law ahead.

Huge concrete blocks line this part of the coast like giant stepping-stones.  Could we step all the way to Largo Law?  The blocks were part of the necklace of coastal defences installed during WW2 and were designed to frustrate any German tank invasion from the sea. The blocks were constructed and laid by the Polish army who had several divisions based in Fife during WW2.  Today, the original purpose of the blocks may be somewhat forgotten but their solidity and mass provide a pleasing sculptural rhythm to the foreshore.   

One of the blocks serves as a makeshift altar to revere the action of the natural world on our talismanic old football. A process of transmutation – of rebirth and growth.

We turn inland from the coast to take the path, called Mile Dyke, that heads between the links golf courses.  This will take us to Silverburn and we can now feel its connection to Leven and the coast.  S  i  l  v  e  r  –  b  u  r  n  is a name to roll around the mouth and along with golden fleeces and transmuted footballs we can sense that we are truly in an alchemical landscape. 

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Silverburn – a Brief History

Silverburn is the former estate of The Russell family who were owners of the Tullis Russell paper making business.  The land was originally part of the Barony of Durie and was leased to Mr David Russell by Charles Maitland Christie of Durie in 1854.  Arthur Russell purchased the land in 1866 and rebuilt Silverburn House. A dower house known as Corriemar was also built and a flax mill was established on the site. 

David Russell died in 1906. His son, (also named David) and who later became Sir David Russell was born at Silverburn in 1872 and in 1912 married and went to live in Aithernie House. He returned to Silverburn in 1929. Sir David had a great interest in trees and many were planted including some rare and unusual species which continue to thrive today.

The flax mill closed around 1930.

In 1973, Sir David Russell’s grandson, Major Russell (Head of Tullis Russell Paperworks) gifted the houses and grounds to Leven Town Council, but also stipulated through the National Trust for Scotland that the “subjects should remain forever as a quiet area used for the benefit of the public in general and the people of Leven in particular for nature trails, quiet parkland and organised camping”. In the mid to late 1980s, the former Kirkcaldy District Council undertook a Job Creation Programme to reinstate Silverburn House for use as a Residential Centre for groups to use such as scouts and guides; school parties, caravan rallies etc. A stand alone wing to the rear of the House was used by crafters to make and show their wares throughout the Summer and Christmas/New Year periods.

Between 1990 and 1999, an average of 20,000 + people per year visited Silverburn. Its main attraction was the former “Mini-Farm” which had on show a wide range of domestic and exotic animals, birds, reptiles and insects.  However, following a Council policy decision in 2002, to cease operating Animal Centres across Fife there have been very few visitors to Silverburn, other than local people. Financial constraints have also led to year-on-year reductions in revenue expenditure with no meaningful capital investment in the Park.

Over the years, various ideas have been proposed for Silverburn including the setting up of a Scottish Music/Arts and Craft Centre and redevelopment as a crematorium.  None of these have come to fruition.

However, work is presently underway by Fife Employment Access Trust (“FEAT”) in collaboration with the local community, agencies and local authorities in the Levenmouth area on a project entitled ‘Heart Mind Soul Silverburn’. This aim of this initiative is to secure a long-term future for the park and to promote wellbeing and employment opportunities. 

We have visited Silverburn a number of times over the past few months.  Drifting around the mixed woodland trails and environs of the estate at different times, on different days and in different weather conditions.  Most apparent is observing and feeling the subtle changes of a thriving natural world; an incipient wildness forever encroaching on the deteriorating materiality of the buildings.  Silverburn is a place highly conducive to the immersive dérive. A locus of past, present and possible. 

The excellent Blacketyside Farm Shop is a wonderful place for sustenance at the start or finish of a Silverburn visit. However, this does means crossing the A915 road which is the main artery into the East Neuk of Fife. The road is a long, straight stretch which can be very busy with vehicles tanking past at high-speed:

wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeejjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjggroooooooooooooooooooooooom

mmmmmm oi nnnnnnnnnnnn

nnnnnnnnnnnn oi mmmmmm

mmmmmm oi nnnnnnnnnnnn

wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeejjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjggroooooooooooooooooooooooom

Enter Silverburn

Overhead, a charcoal smudged blue, heralds a chorus of rooks riffing off the traffic screech.

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Giant American redwoods stand sentinel, stretching for the sun. “Ambassadors from another time” silently announcing that this may not be your conventional Scottish woodland:

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The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stay with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.

John Steinbeck

N: “do you know you can punch a redwood and it doesn’t hurt your hand?”

Blue melts to green as sunlight showers through the tree canopy, dappling the forest floor. Traffic thrum gradually dissolves in the low lipping burr of the flowing burn.  A sunken path beckons and so our immersion into Silverburn begins. 

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 Once in the shade, a sprinkling of light and water; a scattering of silver drops:

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A network of wooded paths through and around Silverburn provide ample scope for aimless drifting. The topography is interesting with a long flat elevated plateau where Silverburn House sits which tumbles away quite steeply down to the flax mill with the golf courses and coast beyond.

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Depending which path you take you will soon stumble across one of the ghosts…

Corriemar: The Dower House

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Corriemar is thought to have been the dower house for Silverburn House.  A dower house is usually a moderately large house available for use by the widow (dowager) of the estate-owner.

Corriemar has been vacant since 1970, having previously served as day patient accommodation for Stratheden Hospital or the Fife and Kinross District Asylum as it was formerly known. (Stratheden will be a place-name that resides in the (un)consciousness of many Fifers. My mother used to say that the teenage antics of my brother and I would send her there. In hindsight, I hope that she was only joking. RIP Mum).

The house today is a crumbling ghost of a building. Buildings need capital, care and a purpose to thrive and Corriemar has had neither of these since the 1970s. Now officially classified as a dangerous building and on the Buildings at Risk register, nature is slowly restaking her claim.

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A pine tree grows out of the roof guttering. Many slate tiles have been lost to the elements, leaving the roof like a mouth full of smashed teeth.

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The building is not just boarded but sealed.

Mute.

All flow and circulation broken:

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Broken Flow

Graffiti abhors a blank surface and Corriemar has become a canvas for a surprisingly diverse display:

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Interesting in that all of these shots, the green leaves of nature always encroach into the frame.

Silverburn House

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Once a home to the Russell family. Old, super-8 film shows children playing and running around on the lawn in front of the house. Adults relax in deck chairs, smoking and chatting…

Now, like Corriemar, Silverburn House is sealed up and dangerous:

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Broken Flows:

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The entrance to the old crafts centre:

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Stretching for the sky:

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On our last visit, we noticed a new addition. Some outdoor seating has been added, fashioned out of tree trunks:

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And at the opposite end of the lawn, a collection of shamanistic divining posts in the family sculpture area:

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As is common with any drift, with a little attention, a surreal world can reveal itself:

The shoe tree:

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The worm mound:

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One tries to wriggle free:

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The giant pencil:

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The stalled roundabout:

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The unknown and undecipherable signs:

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One visit, late Saturday afternoon, a dull twilight. No other humans around and even the bird song is subdued. Only the rustle of leaves – hopping blackbird and scurrying rabbit.  The fungi radiate a pale light:

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A message from the trees:
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Stare for long enough and the tree spirits begin to reveal themselves:

dog-bear

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Tusked boar

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Cyclops

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Preying Mantis

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The Flax Mill & Retting Pond

On the lower level of Silverburn sits the Flax Mill and its associated retting pond.

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Retting is a process which employs the action of micro-organisms and moisture on plants to dissolve or rot away much of the cellular tissues and pectins surrounding bast-fibre bundles. This process is used in the production of fibre from plant materials such as flax and hemp stalks and coir from coconut husks.

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The flax mill was built in the mid 1800s and was one of the first industrial buildings to be roofed with a ‘new material’ called corrugated iron.  Flax fibre was prepared for spinning at Silverburn and was soaked in the retting ponds for about 10 days, after which it was thrashed. Retting Ponds were brought into play after an Act in 1806 prohibited the use of local streams due to excessive pollution which occurred from the process. The flax mill itself was run on steam power. The mill closed in 1930, although, as previously mentioned, the outbuildings were used for the mini zoo during the 1990s.  Today, the brickwork is failing in some places, with over 50% of the brick turned to dust.  An adjacent row of cottages were probably built for the flax mill workers and remain used and in good condition today.

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Look out for the face in the factory:

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and the quizzical ghost:

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The outbuildings:

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The old stables:

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Inside the old stable

the darkest corners – bleed

in slatted sunlight

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The retting pond where the flax was soaked is close by. Now heavily overgrown with vegetation, it is a meditative spot to watch the reflected trees in the water and the teeming pond life on the surface:

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The Tree House and Formal Gardens

How could anyone not be captivated by the tree house? It looks as if it could walk away at any moment on its stilted legs:

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The sense of being watched by the animal heads on either side add a touch of the uncanny:

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By complete coincidence, N has a copy of Reforesting Scotland in his bag. The cover illustration an echo of what we are standing underneath:

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The formal gardens, also comprise a sensory and walled garden. They are clearly places of meaning and memory. On our first visit, we find a wreath of knitted flowers:

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By the time of our second visit they have gone. There are also the lives commemorated and remembered. Emotional linkages between people and place.

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From the sensory garden, the gentle trickle of running water projects around the natural amphitheatre. Bees congregate upon yellow and pink petals shower down on grey.

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Perhaps there is also evidence of the cunning folk at play. A small entrance through a hedge; a portal to another world?

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What is in a Name?

We leave Silverburn to head for the coast once again. Following the flow of the burn back down Mile Dyke to where the silver stream meets the sea.

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We reflect on the name:

Silver – precious, with, the highest conductivity of any metal, allowing energy to flow.

Burn – always in flux/flow. As Heraclitus said, you never step in the same river twice and we know we will never visit the same Silverburn twice. There is also the idea of how prescribed burning of vegetation can recycle nutrients tied up in old plant growth to invigorate new growth.  With the current FEAT and community initiative ‘Heart Mind Soul Silverburn’ perhaps new possibilities for Silverburn are emerging.

And to end. A whispered message from a beach encounter:

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To end with a name and only the name. To end with only the letters of the name:

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Silver sun sliver –

burrs liven us.

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River veils runes

in blue siren lures.

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Briers line ruins,

burn rises in

river lens.

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Vein in burn

silver in vein

burn silver

S  i  l  v  e  r  b  u  r  n.

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Now playing: The Necks – Silverwater

References:

Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland

County Folk-Lore Vol VII. Examples of Printed Folk-Lore concerning Fife with some notes on Clackmannan and Kinross-Shires collected by John Ewart Simpkins (London: Sidgwick & Jackson for the Folk-Lore Society, 1914).

RCHAMS, Canmore

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America.  (New York: Viking, 1962).

Marysia Lachowicz, Polish Army in Fife. (Work in Progress).

With very special thanks to Margaret and Aiveen for the invitation to “come and see what we make of it” and also Aiveen, Margaret, Graham and Ninian for inspiration and sharing that first visit.

Categories
Field Trip Psychogeography Symbol

La Pasionaria and the Psychedelic Tiger: A short wander in Glasgow, 10th July 2013

Watch a street and you become it. You construct, if so inclined, a narrative: but you are also part of the witnessed event. You shape what you see.

Iain Sinclair, Edge of the Orison

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In Glasgow. Uncharacteristic, sweltering heat and a half hour to spare before the gig. Just enough time for a quick wander, to stretch the legs without expectation. A phone camera will have to suffice if anything should reveal itself.

Out of the Arches, underneath Central Station, and into air larded with deep-fried food aromas and traffic fumes. I’m scanning for a sign to get started. Pastel shades shout out for attention and it seems that even the graffiti is responding to the sunshine:

La Street C'est Chic 1

Can’t help noticing the little green archipelago thriving around the base. The resilience of nature to establish existence, in the most barren of conditions, at a busy city centre intersection.

Head down towards the river and pick up the trail:

La Street C'est Chic II

More dancing colour to puncture the grey. A Bernard Edwards bass line bounces around in the head.

Walk straight on for a bit and over to the right there is a figure, facing towards the river, which looks interesting. From the rear I’m assuming it’s some form of religious icon, arms stretched out to heaven? St Mungo perhaps? Cross the road and down a shallow incline of steps to view the figure face on.

Glasgow 10.07.13

A bunch of flowers. wilting in the heat is tucked into the base of the statue. Obviously, still an active site of memory and remembrance. The plaque directly underneath the figure reads:

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The statue is of Dolores Ibárruri (1895-1989), “La Pasionaria” (“The Passion Flower”), a heroine and leader in the Spanish Republican and Communist movements. An inspiration  to the volunteers of the International Brigade who fought in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939.  

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I subsequently find out the sculpture is by Liverpool artist Arthur Dooley, who created the famous Beatles statue, Four Lads Who Shook the World. I was even more shocked to learn that Dooley never saw La Pasionaria installed, unable to afford the bus fare to come to Glasgow.

Continuing along the riverside walkway, a few people are taking full advantage of the heat wave. “Taps aff”. Sitting, lying down, starfished, enjoying being out-of-doors, heads raised, eyes closed, embracing the setting sun. A sense of the more usual activities of the area are perhaps revealed as a young man is pulled up by two patrolling police officers and asked to empty his pockets.

Underneath another bridge to come face-to-face with a psychedelic tiger. A fiery flux of shifting colours, crouched and ready to pounce on the indolent walker:

Tiger

Tiger 2

Ascending from the river up a miniature Odessa Steps, I half expect a pram to come toppling over the top.

Ascension

…and I’m facing Morrison’s Bar which looks like it may never have opened since Jim checked out:

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Morrison's Bar 1

Morrisons Bar….

…. Around the corner, The Riverside  Club doesn’t look to be doing much business either. Perhaps these are ‘badger’ venues – they only come out in the dark?

The Riverside Club

I head into what I find is Fox Street. Looking back towards the east, the setting sun fracturing into shards hitting the ecclesiastical windows of a distant church:

Sunshine on the Church

Continuing west will take me back towards the City Centre:

Past the silent runners:

Silent Running

and the ghosts of Christmas Past:

Ghost of Xmas Past

and what could be a detail from the Boyle Family’s Journey to the Surface of the Earth  project:

Boyle Family ?

Along with the heat and the sunshine, two cheerful lovehearts brighten up the street:

Side by Side

And a message a few feet away.  No addressee. No object of affection. No initials. Just a statement addressed to whom?

I Love You

I walk up towards Renfield Lane, thinking about how even the shortest of walks through a city can surprise, enchant and provoke reflection.   I’m thinking about La Pasionaria, The International Brigades and psychedelic tigers as I descend into the Stygian depths of Stereo. Moving between worlds. From light into darkness and a prelude to shortly having all body molecules rearranged by the shamanic noise rituals of Nazoranai: Keiji Haino, Stephen O’Malley and Oren Ambarchi. Sound as alchemy, carried within, back through the city, as, after the show, I head for the train in the warm, dark night.

Keiji Haino - Stereo, Glasgow 10th July 2013
Haino I
Keiji Haino - Stereo Glasgow
Haino II

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O’Malley
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Ambarchi / Haino

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Now playing: Stephen O’Malley – Salt

Categories
Field Trip Psychogeography

The Wilderness Does Exist – A Field Trip

The Wilderness 1896

How could we not be intrigued?

Casting an eye over some local maps from the late 1800s. Stumble and trip.

The Wilderness.

An actual place on the map.

The delineated form resembles a long-front-legged cartoon fox. We resist the urge to draw on ears, eyes, nose and a brush. Somewhat ironically, The Wilderness is represented by dotted clumps of trees contrasting with the  surrounding patchwork of largely undefined white space.

A field trip beckons. Is it possible to visit The Wilderness as an actual place, rather than just as an idea? Is The Wilderness always just an idea, conjuring up clichéd images of distant rain forests, shifting desert sands or a featureless frozen tundra pulled towards a distant white edge of land and sky. What would this Wilderness look like in 2012?

On a sunny December Sunday of 2012 we set off to see what we can find and mentally attempt to visualise the area of the cartoon fox, as it is today. Our best guess is that if anything is left it may now be in the middle of a housing estate in Rosyth, Fife. There could also be a Tesco store and pub planted firmly in its hind quarters…

The above map dates from 1896 which predates the building of Rosyth, Scotland’s only Garden City. The town was built to service the Royal Naval Dockyard which began construction in 1909. The original houses were first occupied in 1915 and still stand, exuding a solidity and displaying attractive design features that would be alien to the  mass, wooden boxbuilders of today.  (Who would bet against the big bad wolf confronting a timber-framed flat pack?). The original tree-lined street plan also remains largely intact although you will have to search harder to find a front garden. Many are now paved over into parking spaces for the ubiquitous car.

Arriving in Rosyth, we orientate ourselves from the railway station and set off. As suspected, it is clear that the rear end of our fox, on the 1896 map, now houses a Tesco store with Cleos pub alongside. The main road through the town – Queensferry Road – dissects a later phase of house building on the other side. As we walk down Queensferry Road, there is certainly no obvious sign or hint of any wilderness. We can see some mature trees lining the side of the road but it is difficult to say whether these could be original Wilderness trees or part of the town landscaping plan. Following our noses we turn left into Wemyss Street and ponder on the name. “Wemyss” is derived from the Gaelic word ‘uaimh’, meaning ‘cave’. There are strong landscape resonances in Fife to the Wemyss caves up the coast, beyond Dysart but we guess that the linkage is more likely to be associated with the landowning Wemyss family. Descended from the MacDuff Earls of Fife, (Macbeth!) the Wemyss built their castle between what is now known as East and West Wemyss. There are certainly no obvious caves around, that we can see, but in appellation terms, the connotation of landed gentry hobnobbing with royalty sits well with the nearby Kings Road and Queensferry Road.

Walking along Wemyss Street, it does occur to us that this may be a short trip.  We are surrounded by residential houses and yet looking at the map we must be walking over part of the fox’s torso mapped as The Wilderness in 1896.  Maybe this is actually a walk of mourning. A wake for an idea that, for whatever reason, resulted in an area of land being named The Wilderness. We can also extrapolate from the local to the global and the sense of the Earth’s Wilderness footprint being appropriated, exploited, diminished and perhaps lost forever.

Weymss Street
Wemyss Street, Rosyth

We continue to follow the sweep of Wemyss Street and start heading south when we come across a little cul-de-sac named The Woodlands.  This feels better. The signs are singing. We can see trees to the East. This looks more promising – and it is.

Entrance to The Wilderness

Across the world, people have perceived forest wildernesses to be full of spirit, as if the real and visible world had an equally real but invisible world folded within it.

Jay Griffiths (Wild: An Elemental Journey, p. 53).

It never ceases to amaze how, within a few short steps, the feeling of our surroundings can change completely. Guy Debord talks of moving between zones of distinct psychic atmospheres in the city.  We believe that this can also happen outwith an urban setting as described in our post on the  Fife Coastal Path. This happens here. One minute we are unmistakably in a quiet residential area of a small Fife town.  Our most noticeable observation is a black cat dozing contentedly on top of a blue plastic dustbin. She jumps down to greet us and walks a few paces alongside glad of the company.  A few steps later and we are through that transition zone and enter The Wilderness. It really does exist.

Tree mouth
Tree mouth

It’s good to feel the sun today. Fingers of warmth entwine and clasp hands amongst us. The lichens on my skin dissolve into light and the ivy loosens slightly.  Stretching up towards the blue, a moment held in these short, chill days. Drinking from the earth, heavy with water. Sustained.

There are movers on the path. Coming.

Fingers of Sunlight - The Wilderness
Fingers of warmth entwine and clasp hands amongst us
Lichens dissolving into light
lichens on my skin dissolve into light
Ivy on treetrunk
the ivy loosens slightly

We enter the invisible, folded, other world of the wood.  Old trees, bark encrusted with mottled green. Root formations resemble clawed, long-toed dinosaur feet. We expect them to lift free from the ground at any time.

Dinosaur Tree Foot

Hollowed out stumps of wooden teeth sup on leaves and sunlight.

Hollow Tooth

CIMG2161

There is a sense of a trail through the woods but little evidence of human visitation. During our visit no one arrives. No one goes. Just us. The trees and the sound and sense of birds. We find out later that there is no through-route.  You have to climb a fence at the other end to get out so The Wilderness is effectively a bounded area. No doubt this discourages the use of the woods as path of transit, but perhaps helps to retain a little sliver of embedded wilderness.

We have often found that bounded, hidden areas become covert fly tipping sites but there is remarkably little evidence of this practice.  A stray carrier bag probably relates to the two empty cans of Foster’s lager tossed aside.

Two Cans

You can almost visualise the youngsters chipping in to scrape up enough money for their couple of cans before heading to the woods in anticipation of some bacchanalian wildness. We later find one car tyre and a bicycle frame. No white goods!

The purring murmur of running water soon entices and we follow the slope of the land down towards a wee burn.

CIMG2110

Flowing here for many a year that’s what us wee burns do. The flow and the flux of the present moment, always existing in the eternal now.  No history, no future, no time.   Old Heraclitus was right you never step in the same burn twice.

Burn, stream, river, estuary. It’s all just a matter of scale.

CIMG2113

A balloon lies trapped on the water underneath a branch. A human breath captured in time and space.

Imagine a situation where the last trace of human life on earth was the breath captured in a balloon? The most ephemeral of traces. Perhaps this is the breath of the Earth. The life-force slowly puckering, deflating, evaporating. If The Wilderness can exist in Rosyth, then why not the breath of Planet Earth?

Captured breath

CIMG2111

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We follow the burn through to the end of the wood, watched by the bug-eyed tree spirit. Chameleon eyes surveying, observing. Oblivious to time or circumstance.

Tree Face

Listening and watching the wildness of the fungi, spilling from the tree stump.

CIMG2155

[L o s t t i m e i n t h e m o m e n t]

Over the fence at the other end and we are back in a residential street. We know that we are walking down the front leg of the cartoon fox. Appropriately, the road is called Burnside.

Down the Fox Leg

The paws of the fox mark the transition zone and we exit The Wilderness and track back through Rosyth past the Carnegie Institute.

Back to civilisation, the chimneys, the birds and the tags.

Rosyth Institute - the chimneys, the birds
Rosyth Institute – the chimneys, the birds

CIMG2135

Appendix: The Wilderness over time

The Wilderness 1915
The Wilderness 1915

1915 – The Wilderness and our Fox are fully formed.

The Wilderness 1926-27
The Wilderness 1926-27

1926 -1927: The Garden City of Rosyth is now built. We can still see our fox although the rump has been annexed. A trail through The Wilderness is indicated on the map. Wilderness Cottage sits at the South West corner. Our best guess is that this was demolished and replaced by a new build church.

Wilderness 1952-66
Wilderness 1952-66

1952-1966: New residential building has dissected our Fox’s torso almost right through the middle.

The Wilderness - 2013
The Wilderness – 2013

2013: This is how The Wilderness is represented on Google Maps. Only a sliver of green remains – the head of our fox. The name has also disappeared but we know that however diminished it may be, The Wilderness most certainly does exist.

Tree Stretch

Now Playing: Andrew Chalk – The River that Flows into the Sands

References:

Jay Griffiths, Wild: An Elemental Journey (London: Penguin Books, 2006).

Map extracts sourced through Old Maps UK

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).