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.