The cyclops

I felt bad as I looked back at Rob through the rusted bars. Although he was happy to go and look at abandoned buildings, Rob didn’t quite share my passion for exploring them (not to the extent of scaling a 15ft gate).

He’d never say that of course, or complain that I was leaving him lingering on the pavement in a foreign city. That was Rob, forever forthcoming, even when it visibly distressed him.

But we had come to Berlin, a mecca for urban exploration at the time and I was determined to get in somewhere, even if it was just the once.

On entering the building, however, I was dissapointed to find that the place had been stripped bare. It was impossible to tell what the building had even been used for.

Exposed steps led me up a few floors, and I scouted the corridors hoping to at least find a view worthy of snapping. And then I saw it.

The facade made me think me of some archetypal gang lair from an 80’s film. I found myself imagining what it must have been like when the new generation first discovered these places, choosing to reclaim them in their own way after the powers that be so dramatically fell apart.

I took a picture and then hurried back down to the gate, where Rob was waiting, albeit looking a little put out.

I was happy then, sufficiently cleansed of my selfish impulses and glad to be here with a good friend. Then we headed off to discover what else had emerged out of this newly reborn city.

Tower block lights

Night after night we’d criss-cross the centre like a knitted sweater, connecting up places with thread. Then we’d pick a colour and chart a course through the night and in our heads to find the perfect setting.

Passing through the heights of Kingsdown, we knew every one of those tower block lights, twinkling with promise. Then we’d dip down to Park Street, not quite our scene except for a few sidestreets in between where the shirts didn’t go.

In the old town, we discovered bars where possibilities resided. The tunes were different, Bacardi Breezers didn’t feature and black wasn’t only for metal kids. Late nights, not fighting, but trying to find a sense of belonging was our commonality.

Weekends were spent on Gloucester Road, sitting in coffee shops before we knew what real coffee was. All the way down the stretch, we felt like we were keeping it all in check, clocking changes when a shop rejigged its name or a familiar figure no longer looked quite the same.

Sometimes we’d end up in St Andrew’s park, but I never went for that daytime lark, the air stiff with smoke and the sound of beer cans under foot while kids flew past their grans on bikes. Curiosity might push us on to the cusp of Montpelier, where, like tourists, we’d stare over the allotments and into the east, its neighbourhoods infamous and out of reach.

Occasionally, when the city got too much, we’d head up to the Downs and over to Ashton Court. Mess about in trees and talk awkward stuff on the grass, before wheeling it back down through Clifton, insecurities surpassed by the breeze and our expertise for shortcuts.

This place has a name

It was only a matter of time before it all came down. The last time I walked through was on my way to town. Up the mossy steps and across the walkways, into strange spaces layered with paintings.

But then came the great reconstruction. Hoardings went up sharing brash statements about what’s to come once the work is undertaken.

And it got me thinking that something is amiss, the way plans come to pass. Before you know it a block’s pulled down before anyone’s thought to ask: is this what we want for our city, the place that we call home, what would I like to see and feel when all is set in stone?

Nuances of place is heavily underrated, developers don’t see because there’s no money to be made from it. Even when it’s included in the literature, which inadvertently contributes to the decline of what’s being pitched to you.

Luxury apartments in the heart of the street art scene, but in reality it’s being ripped apart by JCBs while men in hard hats and suits watch as the fruits of their labourers plays out.

Why can’t we take the rough with the smooth, no need for every last pock mark to be removed, renovated? It seems like some things are better left unregenerated.

For this history isn’t medieval or wartime but my-time. The paintwork and the street corners are part of a time-line that speaks of the most subtle feats of human endeavour.

Pavements beat bent and broken from stomping children, trees like grandparents leaning over parked cars pushing their roots up to make bike ramps.

Streets where the graffiti is a landmark, plotting a course to a destination where ancestry and intention is lived out.

Conversations over a rusty gate, the flaking paint dropping with the years it takes for bonds to grow so strong that they might just pass over to the next of kin.

These things weren’t prefabricated, but grown from a thousand imprints, thoughts and visions pressed together in a coalition so deep and intricate most would miss it. Except the ones who seek to add their own.

Set sail for a new city

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It was back in the summer of ’14 when I got my hands on the Los Angeles edition of Boat Magazine. The hazy rays that came through the window of the bar I was in seemed to go well with the dusky image on the front cover.

I opened the pages and started to read. Like a good book that you just can’t put down, I quickly found myself  drawn in as discerning articles told of the extraordinariness of ordinary individuals living in the city. But more than that, it was the delicate composition of words that captivated me and a seemingly heightened awareness of the subject matter that isn’t generally found in your average travel magazine. 

From then on, I was hooked and am now the proud owner of six issues of Boat. Not to be confused with maritime glossies, the word ‘Boat’ refers to the ‘floating’ nature of the magazine. Twice a year the team behind it pack up their office and head off to a new city to seek out the stories and the people that help mould a sense of identity about the place. 

The secret to this seems to lie in their approach; by inviting local writers and artists to present their own view of the city they call home alongside visiting contributors, the magazine is able to provide a perspective from both inside and out.  

Invariably, this makes for some pretty diverse reading. My favourite issue on Kyoto, for example, opens with a complex introduction to the city from a resident of 25 years, detailing the intricacies of society and its ability to assimilate new culture. Then follows a feature on ancient forestry practices that are kept alive by a few committed workers while further on, a delicate set of interviews shed light on the hidden lives of the homeless population. 

Yet, for all their individuality, what’s prevalent is a sense of intimacy and sensitivity towards the nuances of place, which threads everything together. The result is a compilation of writing that not only informs, but leaves you with a sense of having glimpsed an inner nature that not many travellers, maybe even citizens, are likely to encounter. This is what keeps me coming back to the magazine rack every six months and its also the reason I’ve kept every issue, so that I might take one out and dip into it, like bottled essence, should life in my own corner of the world become a little dull. 

After dark

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I took this picture after work while I was wandering the sidestreets of town, putting off the dreary bus ride home.
There’s definitely a scenario in there somewhere…what have you got?

Beneath a concrete sky

“Maybe we should call the police.”

Steve shuffled down the steep incline, heart pumping while a river churned black below.

“I just want to see.”

He reached the gravel bank and looked carefully about. Up ahead, the canal swerved between graffiti covered columns, meeting with a shaft of sunlight that found its way beneath the concrete sky.

It fell just short of a figure that was slumped on the floor.

Josh said something else, but the sound didn’t penetrate. Steve’s mind was racing, in competition with his heartbeat. He took a step in the dirt.

Written for The Drabble.

All roots lead upwards – part two

On our last full day, we turned our backs on Florence and took the train to Arezzo, a city less talked about yet promising an equally grand history with Etruscan roots dating back to early BC.

We were rather unimpressed, then, to find a bland urban centre spreading out from the station, made all the more worse by pouring rain. With no other options in sight save for shopping in the highstreet stores, we made a run for a cafe, trying to find one that would fit the five of us and a pushchair. Eventually, we came across a rather unusual but immaculately done out 60’s style joint where we immersed ourselves in pastries and cappuccinos.

Once the rain had eased, we continued away from the train station and soon noticed the environment beginning to change. Unlike many cities where the landmark sights are to be found in the centre, here only those willing to climb the vertiginous streets are rewarded with the true Arezzo. The higher we climbed, the older and more majestic the buildings became. One of the more famous was the Basilica di San Francesco, where the Legend of the True Cross fresco by Piero della Francesca resides. But there was a myriad of other churches and museums at almost every turn, each with their own story to tell. Even the library was a sight in itself, with a wall of carved faces and emblems facing the street.

At the very top of the hill was a cathedral with a working clock tower and nearby, the Piazza Grande, a square surrounded by churches and towers as well as a stunning arched promenade.

But it wasn’t only the architecture that was fascinating. The shops added to the fabric of the area, with many specialist retailers such as a ‘Particularia’ store housed in a building from 900AD, which was packed with curiousities and medieval tools. There were also cave-like delicatessens full of cheeses and Italian meats and wine-tasting grottoes barely large enough for two tables.

With limited trains to take us back, we left Arezzo earlier than we would have liked and opted to go for a last supper in the nearest town to our farmstay. Considering there was only one restaurant to choose from, the decision was straightforward. The place was a traditional trattoria in every sense; analogue TV playing dubbed films in the background, paper tablecloths and hefty pizzas. Not to mention a Tuscan twist of stag’s heads decorating the walls.