Wednesday, 18 January 2012

NPS has a day out in Lakeside.

It happened in Harry Ramsden’s. It was like a low-budget estuary English version of The Matrix, where what seems like the real world breaks down for a few moments and the full horror of your situation becomes clear. Instead of the world fuzzing at the edges with pixel breakdown or a glitch in speech, the artificial world of Lakeside revealed its deception not in a Keanuesque manner but moreover a Larkinesque manner: Bogey smeared menus, wall paper peeling off to reveal past attempts to stick it back down with blue-tack, poorly serviced storage heaters being backed up by three bar heaters like the one made famous in the photo of the old woman who had spontaneously combusted and had left only one lower leg (shoe attached) and a Zimmer frame in a dramatic pose[1], and the giant cardboard fetch of an actor pretending to be the ghost of Harry Ramsden (whose dynasty beget Harry Corbett – he of Sooty fame), falling over every time the front door opened. I suddenly felt this black pit open up below my deep fried ‘langoustine’ with cosmic slop trading under the name tartare sauce, which in turn was excited by refried ex-vegetable matter shaped like chips. It was like being freed from an oubliette, only to find your self still inside a prison, being led to another oubliette. This sense of panic enveloped me, this non-space, sitting under the shadow of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge where a million people cross everyday, made me reach for the crossword and click the ball point pen frantically like popping candy, what was this feeling? Would the crossword hold the answer:  1 across: The act of transferring property; estrangement  (10)…?

Wallets lighter, stomachs heavier, we were drawn deeper into the world of Lakeside and found ourselves at a UCI mega-plex. We had time to kill. I first visited this place in the early nineties, a birthday treat off my eldest sister: Steve Martin’s piss-poor LA Story where a freeway sign talks to him and offers him advice, a digi-board with pretensions towards being a psychoanalyst. The second time, I was much older and I watched Reservoir Dogs, ear cutting and criminal incriminations hurtling around an empty warehouse much like any within a 25 square mile radius of Lakeside. Now I was in my thirties and confronted by a bored lesbian who also looked as hung-over as me and E. Behind her, the once flash fuzzy felt board with metallic letters that had seemed so futuristic in 1991, now appeared world-weary and dyslexic: Maddergasker 2 (pg)…
No thanks.
            Not on your Nelly.

[1] However, an interesting thing occurred that made me question my memory of the three bar heater:

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Folk Singer Jack Alby

Buried in Earlham cemetary, Norwich, is Jack Alby who passed away in June 1992. Jack was part of the Arlington Mummers and Folk Society, named after the area where they met, in and around the pubs of Unthank Road in the fifties and up until Jack's death, dissolving without it's colourful figure head to guide it. I'm sitting in the living room of Jack's house on the edge of the outer ring road with his wife Shirley, now 79. The house has photos of Jack dressed as a straw bear, holding a tankard aloft, surrounded by his fellow singers. A canary sings from another room as Shirley brings in a tray with tea and cups.

Norwich Psychogeographical Society: When did you meet Jack?

Shirley Alby: It was in 1951. I was working as a florist in Norwich, getting the train up from Diss everyday and my Father was a big folk singer. He took me along to the York tavern in Norwich one night to hear the Arlington Singers. I think me and Jack fell in love there and then. My father approved as Jack was so personable, you know, he could charm the devil into giving him a fiver and a lump of butter.

NPS: Can you remember any of the songs from that night?

SA: Yes, they sang one that has always stayed with me... (clears throat): Halantow / jolly rumbalow / we were up / long before the day-o / to welcome in the summer / to welcome in the meadow // Now summer is icumen in and winter's gone away-o. (Laughs).  I have always loved that lilt on the welcome bits. It makes me smile something rotten! I can see 'im now, looking at 'is mates as they bellowed and held that note. It's funny y'know. How music can make you fall in love. It's a bit like magic I suppose, some sort of conjuring trick like them fellas on the telly, Jack was just beautiful there in the smoky upstairs room. Well we got married pretty quick, it was the Whitsun weekend and we 'ad our honeymoon in Whitby. We sang our way through a week of cuddling and a-cooing as honeymooners do.

NPS: Didn't Jack undertake some research into the origins of Babe s in the Wood?

SA: That he did. See, there's a wood out Watton way in Wayland, called of course, Wayland Woods. Now the locals see, they called it wailing wood on the fact that two little babes perished there, pushed into the trees by an uncle who wanted their inheritence. These tales are ten-a-penny across the land, but Jack, he just felt there was something in this, and did a bit of digging. He found buried in parish records the funeral of two small children, a boy and a girl who 'ad wandered away from the care of their guardian and were found painted by Jack Frost in the very same woods. Little Hugh and Mary Judd were their names. My Jack would tell the tale and then sing the song and the silence was something, I can tell you. He would say "this is to all them boys and girls of this world who we musn't forget" and you would see even the biggest fella well up. (Sings) pretty babe s in the wood / pretty babes in the wood / And when they were dead /The robin so red / Brought strawberry leaves / And over them spread.

SA looks out of the window.

...He's like a babe in the wood 'imself now. A lovely ship sailing the forest. (she smiles). He was good at that research lark, he put Alan Lomax onto a shanty singer called Harold Atlas over in Yarmouth who was a walking encyclopedia of shanty songs. He taught my Jack 'Polly on the Shore' which has a lovely melody. Nowadays these things are all over the computers aren't they, but before computers, before Lomax and Cecil Sharp, there was the oral tradition of exchanging songs, of passing on melodies like a game of chinese whispers. My Jack was part of that, the songs were alive for 'im. He felt like it was inviting a ghost to sing through him, he really did, that much more that having the eyes of your grandad or his old commode chair, you could feel him more through the songs he sang, as if the shape of the dead were foming in the air like breath. In them simple melodies you could hear the labour of the fields. You look now at harvest time and you'll see the machines running across East Anglia, and the fields barely alive with either bird or man, but in them songs, you felt that rural ghost touching your ear and blowing visions into your head, of hard lives spent at the harrow and the plough, and of unrest. I think that what my Jack bought to life, and nowadays we don't notice these things no more. I see the young people with their headphones in, tap-tapping away at their wireless phones, and I think to myself, who will hear them songs now? Who will care about the bird in the wood, or the wassail? I'm moaning now, pass us a biscuit duck.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Take a Stroll With Norwich Psychogeographic Society

Take a walk from little Wales, if it's Spring there will be Waxwings if you are lucky, and you'll know you're on the right path; try to avoid the broken glass at the bus stop, and instead take in the exposed end of a building like a tiny castle, the roof taking downward steps towards you, and when you tire of the architecture head towards the city, where the naturalists amongst you will notice fox holes, crushed catkins in the main road gutter, whilst the anthropologists will notice the Chinese students on the westbound side of the street waiting for buses, the irregular builders and landscape gardeners signs denoting Norfolk names, Gunton Bros, Jermy, Nudd and Sons, and you'll play your own surname over in your head as if suddenly it was a stranger in a city of hidden desires, where everything is smoke and mirrors in street corner pubs, where old men with watery eyes spill nuts across sticky varnish, and the ground vibrates with beer coolers and ice machines, here you'll see Black Horses, Pickwick's and Alexandra's, and hear the sound of children singing from a school house, before moving on along past railings where tiny flies dance in the autumn sunlight falling through the Horse Chestnut trees blighted by bleeding canker, the ugly B&B's with passive aggressive warnings in every room, where men arrive late at night and vanish first thing, eating their breakfast in silence, as if a single word could undo a lifetime of work, the fussy little gardens of concrete and petal, whitewashed walls battling with the dribble of English rain, and then the great cathedral, where a man will approach you as you sit and think about absence, and ask you for forty pence, his hands like coin slots, and you'll rummage in your empty pockets and an apology will sound like the loudest thing in the world, before you emerge blinking into brilliant summer light, the car windows down, reggae leaking across the grass verges, people stopping on an ugly footbridge to try and spot their house or the trajectory of the river, a green lane meandering between warehouses and parking lots, and then into the city itself, the windows where people lean out to see the Salvation Army band on Sunday morning announce themselves with brass, then realise it's winter and the snow is brown and rotting and the bulbs of the market make it seem colder, the light and breath somehow reassuring, as if cold is a state of mind that can hold you in it's brilliance, and the pigeons huddle on bank stone, caring little for grand architectural statements of wealth as their faeces splatter the spikes, and you'll find some hot chestnuts to pick at, and you'll think how warm they are, how sweet and tasty and how the dead must miss them, as they move about you unaware of you even being there.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The cable is singing to me as it lowers me down. I like to think it’s done in hands. It is a comfort as the water starts to submerge the vessel. Unlike Laika, I get to come back. There is an umbilical cord that connects me. I think about the man lowering me, his hands covered in fish scale and tattoo, letting the crane winch the bathysphere into the ocean. Down I go, above the water line and then the cable grows silent as the water muffles the whine. What if he were to die? To slip and fall from the crane, his head cracking on the deck, his water going back to the oceans? The salt of his eyes kissing the salt of the sea? I would be down here alone. Cut off from the world. When I was eleven I went to a swimming centre, ‘Phantaseas’ that sat overlooking the Dartford crossing. I was racing my friend on wet tiles and went down hard; my feet fell away like rotten teeth. All was black. I wanted to sleep. It was lovely there, deep inside my head, no noise, no light, no fear or anxiety. Slowly, as if it were the light of far off torches belonging to men in Sunday best searching for missing child brides, there was screaming. Gentle at first, gently rising then louder, more insistent, the screaming grew nearer. It was irritating. I wanted to sleep, to shut it out, throw blankets over it. But it just grew nearer. Then it snapped and it was I who was screaming and the light of pool, the artificial light, swam into my eyes. The whole place sank a few years later, having been built on top of a rubbish tip. As it is no longer there, perhaps the event never happened, perhaps it was an invention of childhood, and in this bathysphere, it seems even more plausible, that alone, the person that is me is left up there on the surface, full of contradictions and lies. In fact the ocean may as well not even be there. It is as unreal as film. My mind has no connectivity with the submerged world that I am entering. I read that whales and Plesiosaurs before them, suffer from the bends. 

Pits manifest inside the whale due to the deep sea diving that they undertake for food. Here in the bathysphere, the pressure is contained. The bathysphere would have to be trepanned by a swordfish, then the two worlds could meet and I would have connectivity. Down I go. Years back L posed as a dead body on the kitchen floor for her art. She had a blanket resting over her body, her face above the nose left uncovered, eyes shut tight. She almost seemed to have been submerged in bathwater; her hair flowed out behind her like a tree painting by a child blowing through a straw. Who are you? They asked in the hospital after my accident. Where do you go to school? Who is the prime minister of Great Britain? Who is your form teacher? Andrew, Major, Dilley, I replied. Dilley lived on the shores of Bewl water, where a village is submerged. Shoals of fish swim out of chimneys, through the lich gate and spiral round the belfry bell of the village church. I stopped in July outside a church in North Norfolk. I had followed Lowell's poem (Quaker Graves at Nantucket) to Walsingham and having found no trace of him I then left, driving west in my car. I stopped at a church and walked around. I recognised it but couldn’t think why. So I drove through the village and on my way out I became seasick with memory. L came from here. The memory was like murmurs under bathwater. Giddy, I drove to a heath and sat listening to the crickets and the cars from the bypass at S. Only the other day a man died there, a few yards away from where I had sat, during a flash storm he left the road, hit a tree and died on the way to hospital, (he was reported to have told the paramedic that the road was a river of water). We drove here in December 1998. She was all about water. We had walked through snow to Holkham bay. In the pines she started crying. Winter was resting on the sea. Now here beneath the waves, in my little capsule, I wonder again, if it actually happened. Memory plays out against the bathysphere, pumice stones pound the sides, the smell of my grandmother’s feet after a bath resting on her footstool swim around the capsule, the paddling pool that collected leaves floats by the window, so too, the outdoor pool at F’s parent’s house in H in Kent. In front of the house there was the swimming pool that was covered in a dark blue tarpaulin sheet. She told me that if you fell in you would never get out, the tarpaulin would wrap around you like a glove, and the more you fought the longer it would take to drown. Just let go, she said, just let go. She told me how one year, a horse from the neighbouring field got over the fence and fell into the pool. The firemen arrived and tried to place hay bails beneath the horses’ hooves, but the hay just floated. In the end the animal was in so much distress that the owner, unable to take anymore, went over to his property and came back with a shotgun and blew a hole in the horses’ head. She described the clouds of blood mixed in the blue water with the straw, her mother sobbing over the piano the whole night, jabbing out ‘You are my sunshine...’ over and over. Down and down I go then I stop. The sound of my body reverberates in my little room. I hold my hands out in front of me and turn them over, stare at the ring on my right hand, the star formed by the lines in my palms, the creases in my fingers. I bring my hands together, palm to palm and push out, turn them over and away. The breast stroke was my favourite swimming method. It meant that I didn’t have to go under the water. I hate it even now, complete submersion. The bathysphere is like the legs of Kim Hilton, closing on me as I tried to swim underneath. The breaststroke calms me. It can carry me to the edge of the pool. The cup I won when I left primary school was for swimming improvement. It was a new cup and my name was the first to be inscribed there. One night I lay dreaming of the sea. In the dream I was walking from Wells to Holkham early one morning in the summer.  The soft heat of the coming day warmed the skin on my arms. After a few bends I came across a wooded lane veering off from the road. It was a sandy lane covered in pinecones that had fallen from the canopy above. I stood looking at the trees, mesmerised by their shape and colour. They seemed as black as the retreating night, each one holding an undefinable sadness like a secret, almost shapeless, smudged against the sky like the memory of an echo. It is almost impossible to explain how they made me feel, but each one was whispering to me. 

Each one wanted to confide in me, and I desired to be lifted up into their canopy and smothered by their great blackness, to stand among them and listen forever. But I broke away from their spell and walked along the lane not looking back, I could hear their whispers racing through my head, so I covered my ears as I walked, while their image slowly faded from my mind. I reached the entrance to Holkham bay. There is a long walk down a tarmac road which seemed to shorten and lengthen. At the end I went through a gate and began to walk through the woods. These were pine too, but they were different from the others, their whispering was not as haunted, they did not alarm me even though I thought I heard soft weeping. I passed through them happily until I had a view of the bay stretching out before me. 

The tide was very far out and I walked towards the gap in two giant sand dunes that ran the entirety of the bay.  Beneath my feet were tiny purple and blue flowers that seemed to grow from a mossy covering that lay like a carpet across the sand. Hover-flies made their way around me, buzzing around the flowers. I lay down on my side and watched as they made their way through their jungle, their giant eyes and striped bodies mimicking wasps. The sea lay before me as still and beautiful as light through floorboards. Birds were swooping on the water and the sun was almost fully above the horizon. The nearer I got the more the sea became something other. This ancient mass of water is like death, cold, vast and once plunged into almost impossible to leave. I took off my clothes and stood naked before the water. I took one last look at the land – the night almost fully swallowed by daylight – then entered the water. I gasped for breath as the water moved up my body, first over my toes, ankles and knees, like a lover in reverse slowly and sensually moving against my flesh and shape as I entered further and further into their embrace. Then it had me completely, I swam below the surface; my ears filling with the briny cold and I rose and let the waves caress me as I floated on my back. Even though it was a dream, I have never felt so at peace as at that moment, I felt safe within the embrace of the sea, it had welcomed me in so softly and now I rested on my back upon its surface. I let it move me the way it wanted, being pushed by each wave back towards the shoreline, and as I lay there in the water I felt the great vastness of the oceans. I closed my eyes and jellyfish swarmed through my mind, long drifting tentacles trailing in the water, the soft pulsating umbrella bodies propelling them through the dark. I felt like I was a ghost-ship of what was once human, an empty vessel being filled with a cargo of images, the sea whispering in my head everything it knew. Slowly as the images subsided, a storm off to haunt others, I turned onto my front and looked shore-wards. Standing there were all the people I had ever known. L was there with a canary on her shoulder. My mother holding my grandmother’s footstool. F holding the reins of a horse. Some, like my sisters, had one hand in the air, others, like a group of girlfriends, were smiling to each other. Some, like the doctor who had examined me after my fall, were looking landwards as their faces had been taken from my mind forever. I started to swim to shore but they all started leaving. The nearer to the beach I got, the closer to the edge of the woods they became. I stood in the surf, the water lapping at my ankles, watching them go. Far off I could hear the sound of a diving bell ringing in the sea. When I awoke, my pillow was wet and cars on the wet road out side my house were projected onto the ceiling of my room. I’m rising up. Perhaps I have not gone anywhere, that it is the sea that has risen and fallen. The window of the bathysphere shows nothing but dark water, like that which flows around the brain, ever moving, ever flowing. Down here I am nothing but memories. As the bathysphere rises I feel things seeping away. People from my memories will stay submerged in the bathysphere after I leave; they remain like ghosts, my imagined perceptions of who they were, wide of the mark. Slowly they move away across the oceans, as if waving from the back of ferries until they are just a dot, a pinprick of light in the darkness of my very own bathysphere. Light is on top of the glass. Sunlight fills my little room. The cable sings above my head. I am home, it sings, I am home.

 Link to adaptation of Bathysphere by Michaela Nettell:

Tuesday, 15 February 2011


You are a ghost that I walk through on a Boxing Day derive. In the electrical cluster-fuck of your supernatural event, everything I own has run out of battery. The pigeons have won the battle for the balcony and with it so too falls the flat. Their shit constellates the asphalt, the plastic owl and the snow damaged fag ends.

 *                        *                          *

How do you grow something larger than its own boundaries? Do you knock down and rebuild with the economics of space at the back of your mind, a chimney coming down in your solar plexus?

*                         *                          *

There is a gully in the Plantation woods, that snakes it’s way around the edge of a sometimes lake. The lake is empty in December, but in the spring months it’s full and is frogspawn and rotted mulch, birch frosted with moss. O Children of Heartsease, these are you woods, let me dream of you at the edges, weapons in hand crafted from mattress springs and winter winded spikes, jutting out like your bony elbows.

*                          *                         *
 There is sunset on the co-op. Sunset on the strip lights. Sunset on the boys, cycling on one bike. There is sunset on the single eye of the CCTV as it follows me, down Holmes Close, like a sleepwalker until I vanish out of sight.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011


I cut out an obituary recently of a wood engraver by the name of John ‘O’Connor. It was illustration of his wood engraving, ‘Little Garden in the Evening’ attributed to the year 1946 that caught my attention. I felt there was something deeper in this engraving that had affected me. It’s a summer evening, of that I am sure. In the foreground there are several grasses and towering weeds and a barrel full of water. Behind this a fence enclosed garden with what looks like a pair of hollyhocks, standing above a sea of what could be crowfoot, pyrethrum or maybe candytuft. Behind this is a garden shed, pointing up to the sky like a cathedral to nature. The background is made up of various trees, swinging their branches furiously as the sky darkens with an incoming storm. The water in the barrel is like a tiny sea, the surface water angry and unfit for sailing. The shed is peculiar; it almost seems out of place, a hermitage for O’Connor’s thoughts. The Obituarist Simon Fenwick writes: “He (O’Connor) saw his favourite painting places in Suffolk – the ponds, willows, briars and honeysuckle – disappear beneath the bulldozer and combine harvester, and eventually moved with his wife to the emptier spaces of south-west Scotland.” O’Connor was chasing a ghost, a rural ghost, much like John Sell Cotman’s ‘From my father’s House at Thorpe’ had chased a garden of childhood memory, and instead of a work steeped in nostalgia, we see instead work bathed in melancholia; swimming in the black bile of a man’s inner life. O’Connor’s engraving is alive – I can feel the wind, and the air alive with the storm’s electricity. I can smell the heavy perfume of the garden flowers. And I can hear the trees and the water moving in the barrel. Trees have always played a part in human death; they are the dark smudge at the edges of our vision. As a child I remember a man from the village disappearing a week before Christmas. I was at a friend’s house, and we decided to go into the woods and he suggested that we may find the man living wild amongst the trees. That evening we sat watching the Two Ronnies, anticipating The Phantom Raspberry Blower, while waiting for my father to collect me. We were so engrossed that we had not noticed the arrival of my father who was talking in hushed tones to my friend’s parents. They had found the man hanging in the woods. Not far from Shepherd’s Barn where a farm-hand had taken his life too, in the very same manner. Nestled in a small valley, the place up until thirty years ago was one of the loneliest places imaginable, and as kids we would all avoid it. Some said you could hear the rope in the wind. Others said they had seen a sad looking man with a bruised neck watching them from the barn door. Forgetting local ghost stories that probably manifested in saloon bars, this place where a young man felt compelled to take his own life, down among the linden and the ash, is now crossed by a million people a day as they circulate the M25. 

Before moving to Norwich, the news was full of the disappearance of a thirteen year old boy called Thomas Marshall, from a North Norfolk coastal village named Happisburgh and the subsequent discovery of his body in Thetford forest. The village butcher did it - grooming the local kids, until one of them (Marshall) tried to blackmail him for confectionery and ended up being murdered and crudely and cruelly dumped in the forest. I visited Happisburgh recently. The village sits right on the bend of Norfolk as the coast swings round towards Cromer. Happisburgh is a place that is disappearing itself. People have woken up and found the value of their property plummeting into the North Sea as the cliffs move closer and closer to their backdoors. The local pub has a plaque with Sherlock Holmes emblazoned upon it. ‘Conan Doyle wrote here’. 

Holmes in profile: the classic Basil Rathbone jaw line, the customary hat and pipe - far more recognisable than the profile of Doyle the embittered writer of the great detective, and later the mourning father-cum-spiritualist in search of his son’s soul who took a bullet in World War One. Around a century later, a case worthy of Holmes presents itself in the very same village, and using Holmes’ scientific methods, Norfolk police get their butcher. In Happisburgh church they’ve erected a steel spiral staircase up the tower in memoriam to Marshall, where from the top one can enjoy views across the North Sea or back across the flat and treeless Norfolk landscape. I wonder if Doyle ever climbed the original stairs of the tower and imagined Holmes and his biographer, Dr John Watson, taking in the view. Watson, out of breath, (due to being overweight and his knee wound from the Boer war giving him gyp), commenting on how the British landscape makes a man proud of his nationality. Then Holmes, the sweat pouring from his brow due to his opium addiction, destroys Watson’s pastoral maundering by looking at the landscape with his usual dread of human nature and regarding it as the perfect stage for an evil more vile than in any of London’s darkest alleyways, to manifest.