The Appeal Of Fallen Buildings

MikeachimThe Everyday2 Comments


There’s a place that haunts my mind – and it’s in Belgium.

Now, the less charitable among you may suggest that Belgium generally haunts everyone’s mind. Some Belgians feel this way. But this is probably unfair, even if it’s quite funny. Belgium has had a long and glorious history of being everyone’s favourite Shortcut To Somewhere Important, and it’s not my intention to tarnish or ridicule that much.

I saw this place from the deck of the ferry taking me home to Britain, at the end of a week of AWOL from my first year at University, in order to see my then-girlfriend. (I’ve posted this story previously – but in the previous incarnation of this blog, and since it’s a good yarn, I’ll dig it out sometime). I was exhausted (no, for respectable reasons), and as the ferry prowed out into the North Sea, I thought I could see…

a vast, ruined city. Something with a hint of Melnibone about it – rotting and crumbling. A once-place, now being inexorably reduced to dust and corruption. No place for the living.

Then I shook my head to unfog my brain, and looked again, and this time saw an array of fantastically ugly apartment blocks littering the shoreline. They looked rotting and crumbling, but then so does, say, Hull, from a long distance away. In fact that’s the right comparison: if you head into Hull from the east coast of Yorkshire, you take a long, Roman-straight road into the city centre, a long line of shops and grubby-looking concrete flats, filthy in that special way only perishing concrete can achieve. Belgium, it seemed, was using lumps of Hull as sea defences.

There’s something magically poignant about abandoned places. Sad, yes, but deliciously sad – a sadness that spoke to your early childhood, when you wanted to be alone and find yourself. They loom large in literature and modern entertainment: the eerieness of an abandoned, overgrown New York in the recent I am Legend which stays with you long after the film’s semi-gormless second half, or the knee-weakening emptiness of a world derailed by meteorites, Martians, rage-infected monkeys, Satan, Cylons, Cyberdine Systems, wars, nuclear accidents or simply just the natural ebb and flow of cultures and economies.

Striding round Wharram Percy, most famous of England’s deserted medieval villages, is still poignant and unsettling in an age when urban growth is virtually all one-way. This is a failed part of our world – except archaeologically, in which it’s a unique treasure-trove of a snapshot of medieval village development. And there are plenty of others out there, still being discovered – here, in one of the most densely-populated parts of the planet.

Our heart goes out to the neglected. Abandoned cottages call out to be re-loved – hence it’s easy to become obsessive about redevelopment if you have the money (that’s my plan, anyway). They’re an obvious metaphor for second chances, and we project into them with wild abandon, wanting them to show us how to renew ourselves. They’re also a quick and easy way to plug ourselves deep into the past, to sidle into the timelines of others and expand our informal ancestry. And they have something that most architects can’t create at will. They have atmosphere. They have atmosphere in spades.

The emotional and spiritual hooks of an abandoned place don’t take long to sink into you. And it’s for that reason that someday, even if I’m going to be disappointed (and I expect I will be), I’ll have to visit those distant, crumbling apartment blocks – and reassure myself that they’re a real place.

Image: sigma.

Q10: Fitting A Door In My Brain

MikeachimThe EverydayLeave a Comment


The problem with using a PC that’s connected to the Internet – well, there are plenty of problems.

Oh, this will be a big list. Short break first.

E-mail. Digg – WOAH that’s crazy. Stumbleupon. Twitter. Facebook (Friends – status updates OHMYGOD message message message). BBC News. Huffington Post. E-mail again. How’s my Space Pioneers empire going? E-mail. Check Stumbles – that’s cool, that’s cool, that isn’t.

The main problems with

Where am I going with this? Stick to singular, keep on target. Stay on target. Stay on TARGET.

Watch 10 minutes of Star Wars.

Write on scifi forum about how much I hate all of Star Wars except the original film. Rant about how Battlestar Galactica makes everything and everyone look stupid by comparison.

The main problem with the Internet is

E-mail Twitter Facebook


I’m exhausted. I need a break.


Distractions are

Is that the damn time?

distracting. Holy shit, Einstein. Distractions are fundamental to the nature of the Internet – how online content is allowed to propagate. Social media (ie. Digg, Stumbleupon)

Twitter Digg HAHAH that’s wild, 80mph down a mountainside on an ironing board! – Stumbleupon, yes yes NO THAT’S LAME, EPIC THUMBS DOWN yes yes HAHAH Yes!.

is all about interrupting you from what you’re already doing. Organic and lateral, yes, but also wildly unfocussed

Order new contact lenses

and after a while, it rewrites your brain so your attention span is that of a gnat with a weak bladder. You just cannot

E-mail Digg Facebook Stumbleupon

focus for any length of time.

And that’s the curse of the Microsoft packages, and pretty much any other word processor out there.

Except this one.

I loaded up “Q10″ and immediately hated it. Where had my Start button gone? Where had the bottom toolbar gone? What the hell was this, DOS?(Oooh, clattery typewriter noises when you type, that’s fun. And a carriage return noise too – that’s my new Favourite Thing This Minute. Blog post idea: list of my new favourite things this week – on Friday there were 287 of them).

(Where was I?).

I can’t check my e-mail. I can’t even check my Facebook! What is this, the Dark Ages? Do I look like the Venerable Bede? Frigging stupid pissy broken backward…

I can focus on my work.

How interesting.

And anyway, all I have to do is press the Windows key and go back to my desktop. The main thing is that all the distractions aren’t on screen, clamouring for attention, reminding me of all the easier, less productive stuff I could be spending lower-quality time with. It’s the difference between a curtain and a door. It’s better.


How many words have I just written? (Rhetorical question, the wordcount is down there at the bottom).


I think I may have a new Favourite Thing Ever.

An Afternoon At Josie’s

MikeachimThe Everyday5 Comments

(January 2005)


A lot of people pass through Bempton. The village, a little to the north of Bridlington and a little inland from Flamborough Head, is the site of the ornithologically famous Bempton cliffs, one of England prime seabird nurseries (particularly gannets). The cliff walk is spectacular, so you’ve be forgiven for not lingering in Bempton itself, except to grab a fortifying pint at the village pub. And so you might never pop your head round the door at Josie’s.

At first sight, the outside of this place looks…..well, let’s be frank: it looks like a bomb recently went off in the yard, and they’re only halfway through clearing up. A random scatter of furniture and fittings, loosely grouped into catagories: rotting cupboards, flaking orange metalwork, glaze-cracked ceramic sinks, monstrous earthenware curiosities. It’s bizarre and not a little intimidating.

You go in the first shed facing the entrance….and it all starts to become clear.


Josie’s is the mother, the grandmother, the supreme Earth goddess of all British odds’n’ends antiques shops. It’s so magically cluttered that it hardly seems real, as if they’re filming the next Harry Potter Diagon Alley scene there soon so would you mind not disturbing anything?

Say you’re moving into a new house, and you need a few bits and pieces to fill the gaps in your domestic inventory. A teapot, perhaps. Some spoons. A cupboard. A platter. If you come here, you’re forced to reassess your priorities: what kind of teapot? Japanese? Edwardian? Hornsea Pottery? Would you like these 20 spoons with the (presumably imitation, but you never know) gold scrollwork, or maybe these bone-handled ones, or even the green glass spoons over here? Will your cupboard be old pine or new pine or pine with dust-impregnated velvet trim, or how about some lovely teak (and look, this folds out, AHA, I presume this is where they keep their garden trowel collection), or mahogany, or…..

And it just keeps going. For ever and ever. It’s all here. Oh, a lot of it needs a damn good wash. The point of this place is variety and width, not glamour.

So you weave your way through this astonishing display of domestic productivity, flirting with tetanus in the gardening tools shed, dodging slithery piles of books and records, past all the mug handles carefully arranged to clutch at you as you pass, through the Manhatten of glasswork in the middle room, down the stairs and into the main hall, itself as big as most antique shops.
I saw a wonderful set of earthenware goblets. I hope they’re still there next time I visit – I couldn’t afford them this time round)….they’d be perfect for a certain Orkney cottage of the future (I’ve still got my sights set on that – Ed.), for mulled wine after a hard day’s rebuilding.

Also, in hunting through the books, I found this.


(The sequel, advertised on the back, is Splendid Yarns For Boys).

It’s true, you know. Sometimes England CAN be like this.

Travel Tip: Smapping

MikeachimThe EverydayLeave a Comment

Whenever I go anywhere new, I keep an eye out for information boards, so I can smap them.


Smapping is the process of taking a digital photograph of a map that you won’t have access to later, except if you take a snap of it.

My first smap was of the Durham train station ‘You Are Here’ glass-encased map.


Smapping also works nicely with maps and guides that other people want to take away and read.


At first sight, squinting at a tiny digital camera screen might seem a frustrating and fruitless exercise – until you remember that you can zoom in, making the map detail many times larger than real life if need be.


(Of course, if you don’t speak the language it’s in, more detail might not help you too much).


Smapping also works for taking a record of something you want to read later.


The main disadvantage is that your smap runs on batteries. So take plenty of them.


The final reward of being a compulsive smapper is that your photographic record is stuffed full of automatically-gathered facts and figures to work into your diary write-up or post-holiday bragging. All without using a scrap of paper.


(All maps property of map illustrators/sponsors, as displayed).

Owl Call

MikeachimThe EverydayLeave a Comment

Owl In The City by Artolog - Flickr

There are few sounds that pull at you like an owl’s cry.

A few days ago, I was up in the early morning, freeing a spider from my room (the mosquito season is over: normally I’d leave a spider where it was, but it wouldn’t take long to starve). I tipped the end of my V-bent magazine over the bushes, and the spider slid down onto a leaf and scurried away. Only the third of the garden nearest the house was visible in the dim wash of CFL light from the kitchen.

CoooWEEE coWEEE. Co-hohohHOHHHHWwww.

It was in the tree above the gazebo. I went back inside, pulled on a fleece jacket, jammed my hands as far into my pockets as physics would allow, and walked out to the edge of the darkness, filling my eyes with it.

I love the dark; heavily influenced by an essay by Kathleen Jamie in her book Findings (but read the full piece here, courtesy of the Guardian). Darkness is like the world laying back with a contented sigh after the eye-wearying adolescent tumult of the day – and it’s such a shame that we spend so much of our time fighting it off with electricity, instead of learning to enjoy it (not something that comes naturally to us, nowadays).

After ten minutes, I could make out the owl. It was the same size as my thumb at arm’s length, an inkier blot against what seemed to be total darkness, were it not for the owl. I could see its head occasionally turning (the mouse police never sleeps). The more I watched, the more I could hear the hiss of the night….and when it called again….


it was as jarring as slicing my finger on a tin lid, going right through me.

Up close, the call of an owl is a shrill, angry thing. From afar, it becomes unbearably poignant, dragging sad memories from you and parading them across your unwilling mind, what-ifs and why-didn’t-Is. You could get to a lot of deep hurt if you were listening to an owl at exactly the right distance – and I got a glimpse of that, in the garden, before I got too cold and shivered and coughed, and the owl started and took to the air, leaving the branch waving and bobbing as I went back indoors, shutting off the light and disappearing back into the oblivion of my normal evening.

Image: artolog.