Please excuse me while I enthuse wildly on this subject.
A Matter Of Fact
Remember those long summer holidays where you bronzed your limbs by cycling helter-skelter down country paths, enjoying the movement of the pit of your stomach when you hit a bump and relishing your own power and immortality? You’ll be the previous generation, then. Nowadays it’s a bitch of the highest magnitude to prise teenagers away from their electronic other halves, and combined with the reaction to the popular media’s dog-with-a-bone respray of the British Isles as the “Paedoph Isles”, kids just aren’t roaming like they used to. Slowly but surely, we’re unlearning to ride.
Yes, it’s from Starbucks. Stake me to a tree and set wild leopards on me if you like, but I feel it’s a gracious act to choose a receptacle sold by the beverage vendor most likely to fill it. Also, I couldn’t find another one as nice at the time. But mainly the first reason, I promise.
The Starbucks Venti Carrot-Grip BeanBuster (this is my own name for it, I should add) is fashioned from reassuringly hefty ceramic and is laterally enrobed in an endearingly tactile band of faux-rubbery orange plastic. It’s microwave and dishwasher proof, and it’s made in China. For Starbucks.
Ethical crusaders may be kicking up a fuss here. Where in China? It’s plastic. And, and it’s Starbucks! But it’s a nice mug and it’s a start. It’s a tote bag for liquids – and I’m sure I can think of other tote bag analogues to work into my lifestyle.
But there’s another thing I like about it. It doesn’t have a handle.
I like this for 2 reasons.
Firstly, it feels every-so-slightly medieval, distinctive and rebellious to drink out of such a cup – and you can’t quaff from a handled cup, dammit.
And secondly, I used to work at a pottery – and my job was processing mug handles before they got stuck on. I’ve had my life’s share of them (over a million, I’ve estimated). I believe I’ve earned the right to opt out.
The river Ouse was, for a long time, the bloodstream of mercantile York. In Roman times it provided the means to transport bulk goods for the military (grain, for example, as seen in the remnants of beetle-infested Roman grain cellars along Coney Street). It allowed cost-effective transportation of raw and worked materials in and out of the city, allowing the economy to thrive, thus aiding the development of the high-prestige specialised industries that made York such a focal-point in English medieval craftworking. It helped people into York, and it helped people stay here. It also, like any self-respecting bloodstream, carried away a lot of the filth generated in the process.
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.
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