Monday, 30 September 2013

The Stories that we Grew up on - "The City and the City" by China Miéville


On the plane ride from Singapore to London, I read China Miéville's The City and the City in its entirety. It is a compelling read, and I must admit I had previously thought he was some sort of steampunk writer based on what very (very!) little I knew of his previous books (of which I admittedly had not read before), but I have to admit I found myself much more inclined to want to read him after I read that he had once said that he wanted to write a book in every genre -- likewise I always think I would like to write a song that transitions into every other genre. So... I think we must have some things we can agree on.

The book's style is hard-boiled; the novel was apparently written as as a gift to his terminally-ill mother with a fondness for the mystery novel. The language is very readable, and for a novel that invokes Kafka in its cover reviews, it turns out to be a completely precise and logical affair. But I guess this sort of preciseness is necessary to sustain the peculiar conceit of the novel's setting being in a city that shares its physical space with yet another city. You would imagine this sort of "overlay" could result in a setting that is distortedly surreal, but fortunately I think it has been hemmed in very believably with restraint and control.

Now this is a spoiler alert! The crux of the "The City and The City" begins with Inspector Tyador Borlú, a seemingly Balkan-style detective being assigned to the murder case of a young North American archaeology student residing in Ul Qoman who was apparently murdered in Besz, and her being seemingly embroiled in some intrigue in her belief of the existence of "Orsiny", a supposed third imaginary city which exists in-between the spaces of the cities of Ul Qoman and Besz.

Ul Qoman and Beszel exists as two cities which actually exist in the same geographical space, however, people in each city are required to "unsee" the other city - distinguishing them through "key signifiers of architecture, clothing, alphabet and manner; outlaw colors and gestures, obligatory details, and supposed distinctions in national physiognomies".

So how does a city exist in the same space as another city? Perhaps it takes inspiration from the idea of quantum superposition (in its most layman definition) to be how something like an electron can actually exist in all of its theoretically possible states at the same time, but it is simply that when it comes to measuring or observing it, only one of its possible configurations is observed. It is funny, since George and I have discussed this (it seems, not too long ago), but I know I gloss over the technicalities of it, whereas he studied it (in part) as a thing in Physics (and Philosophy?). I think I am attracted to it as I have always viewed the city as a place with a separate layer of meaning that could be manipulated even without manipulating its actual physical architectures. I mean, this is the crux of the Singapore Psychogeographical Society and the projects I've been doing for the last few years.

Anyway, in the novel, the idea is that Inspector Borlu is having a hard time because he had assumed this case would be handled by "Breach", this nefarious, scarily ubiquitous all-seeing-eye that polices for illegal crossings, such as in the case of someone who might have crossed illegally from Ul Qoman to Besz (e.g: possibly the murder of the girl).

However, Borlu's task becomes much more complicated when he learns that it will not be handled by Breach because it had actually been a legal crossing. And because the crossing had been legal, Breach was "not invoked". We are also told that "(Breach) is not the passage itself from one city to the other, not even with contraband; it is the manner of passage (…) the smartest dealers, though, make sure to cross correctly, are deeply respectful of the cities' boundaries and pores, so if they are caught they face only the laws…"

As the novel wears on and the investigation deepens, we find out more about the notion of "Orsiny". The interesting part is when Borlu cannot tell what is potentially "Orsiny" and what is "Breach". it is harder to tell even from reading the novel in general. If Breach is truly just the thing in-between, then is there truly an Orsiny? A place that everyone in Ul Qoma think is in Beszel and a place in which everyone thinks is in Beszel and not in Ul Qoma? A place that is crosshatched but even more than that? Where is Breach delineated? Is there truly a systemic transgression in which there can exist a secret parasite city where there actually should be nothing be "Breach"?…

I could continue but I think you can read it for yourself. Also, actually I am really excited about the neologisms - dopplurbanology, grosstopically, topolgangers, crosshatching, unseeing, unhearing... I think of course that the idea of unseeing or unhearing doesn't require a novel in which they are all separated. This happens even in real life where people cannot agree on things but choose to be blind to certain scenarios, and this quote is particularly poignant:

“How could one not think of the stories we all grew up on, that surely the Ul Qomans grew up on too? Ul Qoman man and Besź maid, meeting in the middle of Copula Hall, returning to their homes to realise that they live, grosstopically, next door to each other, spending their lives faithful and alone, rising at the same time, walking crosshatched streets close like a couple, each in their own city, never breaching, never quite touching, never speaking a word across the border. There were folktales of renegades who breach and avoid Breach to live between the cities, not exiles but insiles, evading justice and retribution by consummate ignorability. Pahlaniuk’s novel Diary of an Insile had been illegal in Besźel (and, I was sure, in Ul Qoma), but like most people I had skimmed a pirated edition.”

The Rocks of Inis Mor

TEAM FIRE visited Inis Mor the other day. I asked to be taken to see the following: (1) a castle (2) an irish pub (3) a cliff by the sea (4) ROCKS; the first three were easy to find and on the last item, George exceeded himself by deciding to take us to Galway and then to THE ARAN ISLANDS! Galway on its own deserves a whole post to itself but the Aran Islands was completely unreal. Picturesque, completely isolated, harsh weather and extremely beautiful terrain, the island of Inis Mor was apparently the model for Father Ted's Craggy Island, and also the star of the documentary Man of Aran. We were to stay at a cottage that had been built for the filming of this fictional documentary about life on the islands, which had apparently represented a kind of traditional rural irish lifestyle, now lost in time...

To begin, the ferry ride was already something out of a storybook. One unaccustomed to the seas might be compelled to write home immediately after experiencing the life-changing highs and lows of the ferry from Rossaveal to Inis Mor. Seemingly death-defying, stomach-churning multi-storey heaves and drops over ridiculously high rolling waves of the Atlantic, at some points actually eliciting involuntary high-pitched screams from tourists onboard, clutching the armrests of their seats with white knuckles. With each roll, the horizon would completely disappear and reappear from view. We had already taken the largest ferry, a 400 seater, as we were told that the smaller ferries would not sail on days with poor weather. Indeed I'd imagine a smaller boat being easily swallowed by the waves. Having sat on a fair number of boats in my time but only in the relatively sheltered waters of Singapore, this kind of extreme sea-crossing was something I had never witnessed before.



After some confusion and having to call for help to get a taxi after we wandered away from the pier (into what we realised was a completely sleepy town) - we were eventually received with much hospitality at the Man of Aran Cottage by Joe and Moira. We read that the cottage had been built for the documentary "Man of Aran", hence its moniker. It is curious to think that it was probably built with the intentions of making it seem as authentic as possible, but now some 80 years on this house seemed as ancient as the others, perched on this unlikely point of the island.

The cottage is situated a fair distance from the "main town" area and this also meant there was absolutely nothing around us at night. The nearest shop (a SPAR, which closes at 6pm) and pub (Joe Watty's) are close to the port, whereas the Man of Aran is located at the centre of the island, close to the fort. But in the morning, the view from the Man of Aran Cottage is fantastically spectacular. You know like when you hear the frightfully loud sound of a heavy wind whistling on the window when you sit in your city flats and pretend you're far out in the wilderness? WELL PRETEND NO MORE! This is the real thing.

We were fortunate to have met Andrew at the Man of Aran Cottage; another guest at the Man of Aran at the time. He had spent almost a year on the island back in the 60s, and had penned a book about his experiences in a book, "An Aran Keening". (We later went down to the bookstores in Galway and tried to find it). He was very kind to show us the way to the Pool na Bpeist or Pool of Serpents, and as we walked there I realised it was very very fortunate that he brought us there the way he did, for we would never have found it otherwise, and the approach he took was very much better.


For the most part, it is simply covered in this endless face of rock, cracking at the surface. Most of the rock is patterned in bold grykes. The rock itself is similar to that of the limestone at the Burren across the ocean; Burren from "Boireann" which means "a rocky place".




Glacial Erratics

Glacial erratics are rocks which do not belong to the rest of the rock below it and is thought to have been deposited on top of the surface when they were carried on a giant iceberg that floated over the rest of this island during the ice age. Then when the ice melted these large odd stones were deposited on top.


Another glacial erratic


Green moss on Glacial erratic








The plants that lived in the environment were also incredible. You would see these lovely little plants everywhere, growing between the cracks in this almost inhospitable environment and they would look so downy and soft and inviting but if you ever tried to peel one off you would discover they were ROCK SOLID. Tough as nails! Impenetrable! Unchewable! Teeth-breaking! Not to say I tried to chew them but attempting to dislodge a tiny corner of it was more like trying to chew on a car tire.







We were buffeted by strong gusts of wind, fit to blow a person off the cliff face, so we were sometimes crawling slowly towards the edge; creeping over the wet rocks of Aran, over an endless maze of low stone walls, endless landscape of nothing but craggy rock.


This is the Pool of Serpents (Poll na bpeist), a naturally formed geological feature which looks like a rectangular olympic sized swimming pool. Although this is not evident in the picture, as the winds were high (and we so unaccustomed to walking on wet rocks) we were terrified walking so close to the edge...




Dun Aonghasa can be seen at the top of this cliff. It is the one of the most important prehistoric forts on the island and a UNESCO world heritage site. It is basically a very very old fort that is thought to have been used since 1100 BCE.

We also discovered that an entrance fee was actually being charged for people entering Dun Aonghasa, but the point at which they charged travellers was down below. But because we had come from a more 'extreme' walk along the rocks and strong winds and then climbed over a low rock fence to get into a well-worn path covered with many tourists in hiking gear, we slipped through without passing that checkpoint. I find that it is a very curious thing to fence up all the rocks and set opening and closing times - we saw the same thing being practiced at Stonehenge. It is baffling because I think me and George operate more along the lines of the "let's walk in this direction until we find the rock" sort of manner, without care of the "opening or closing time of the tourist attraction". The rocks on this touristic path were rubbed smooth and very hard to walk on, unlike the rough rocks of the rest of the island.



Dun Aonghasa




The view from Dun Aonghasa


Finally I wanted to add that we found a large rock that had been intentionally placed on the road to stop cars from driving down it as it is used by children frequently. Not a glacial erratic, but I love how it has been placed there with a purpose, on a road. How lovely, to imagine a place where they put a rock to block up the road so that cars won't drive up and down it, so that people can walk on it freely!

I'll stop here for now but... NEXT UP: The plants and wildlife of Inis Mor!

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Very-nearly but Not-visiting Stonehenge

TEAM FIRE not-visited Stonehenge on a day trip the other day. We took a train from London Waterloo to Salisbury (around £36 return), then the X5 bus (£6.40 for day return) from Salisbury to Amesbury, and then walked from Amesbury and almost got to Stonehenge. This is an account of the non-visit to Stonehenge.



Salisbury and Amesbury both look very pleasant, amply catering to the tourism in the area. Hippy daytrippers and tourists with big cameras. Quaint cafes and people having their all day full english breakfast. We walked from the train station to a bus terminal a short distance away to take the X5 to Amesbury which was a little bit up north. From there our plan was to walk up to the highway and then to the left until we hit Stonehenge.


Stonehenge Road in Amesbury


This way to Stonehenge...


Crossing the river Avon on Queensberry Bridge which was built in 1775. The river brings water to the area and is thought to have been used to transport stone for Stonehenge.


This strange cow was staring at us. So we stared back at it.


There was a dead bird on the road.


I was very amused by these flowers growing everywhere. They seem to be some sort of wild orchid, but I had never seen such flowers before.


A small ladybug hitched a ride on George's pant leg whilst we had stooped down to look at the orchids. It must have taken a yen to George's trousers, because it could not be detached initially, causing some trauma as I didn't know how to remove it without hurting it.


Another ladybug having a crawl on George's hand.


We found another strange sight - a snail on another snail on a poppy flower?


The dandelions got more and more massive. They were even... crunchy? Made a raspy sound, they were so big.


The road was just ridiculously long.


Finally, Stonehenge came into view from the distance.


The approach by foot to Stonehenge via Amesbury does not lead you to a proper entrance, but rather a sheep gate. Basically they've built a massive fence around Stonehenge. Another important discovery we made as we finally got there at 6.30pm was that Stonehenge closes at 6pm. You must be thinking, how can Stonehenge close at 6pm, well before the sun sets? Well it does. It just does. I find it completely absurd that such a policy should stand. Its still there but someone says its shut at 6pm. It doesn't mean you can't walk up to Stonehenge or see it behind the fence, but the security won't let you in, and attracted by us disturbing the sheep and walking up to fence, the security gravitated to us, as we pressed our sticky hands and faces between the gaps in the the human-sized fence.



We also bumped into some other eastern-european-sounding tourists trying to get in but also had been turned away.



Eventually I turned my attentions to chasing sheep. Unfortunately, sheep seem to be engineered to run away from people. So I did not get to touch any sheep.


And so that was how we not-visited Stonehenge, yet there it is, behind the construction sign...