The vastness of the vista when you reach the peak of the Freshfield dunes is enough to encourage a sharp intake of breath, even when the winds aren’t up. Just before the shuffle, often ankle-deep, down the loose grain sands to sea level.
Such expanse so close to intense urban life can surprise many, the lay of the land keeping all that density just out of view here. Very different to the beach at Crosby, with its Iron Men, suburbia just behind and the striking colours and angular shapes of the container port adjacent. That’s an attractive scene too, but not otherworldly like Freshfield can seem, just a few train stops further along.
A line of sky, a line of water, a line of sand. Long stretched streams of cloud vapour, separating at the edges like torn cotton wool. Freshfield can almost seem like a child’s picture of the coast. The thin frames of the wind turbine clusters waving at a steady beat in the distance, the only continual indicators of the industrial world in this space. Beyond those though, a view further to the black undulating hills of Wales.
In some lights from the top of the dunes, the Freshfield sands seem almost grey. A stretching moonscape butting against water that often appears far more tranquil than the reality of the intense currents and tidal range of the Mersey estuary and Liverpool Bay. The optical illusion across these horizons makes the huge industrial block colour ships that sail past appear much closer than they really are. As if you could paddle out in shallow waters and touch them.
The Irish sea winds whip the sands into wisping streams, giving visibility to the air and a flecking of grit that on some days forces you to close your eyes against it. The wind and moreso the tide never let up here, eating away day after day at the coastline, slowly pushing it back and advancing the course of the sea. The dunes are the principal barrier, their tufts of grass struggling to the surface, curved in the direction of the wind like punk hairdos. Behind them, the other barrier: tall pine trees, the sun breaking through their foliage to spotlight the ground. They can give the impression of ancient forest, though in some respects they’re almost as artificial as the wind turbines and often shorter lived. It’s only once through these trees you can see the road back to wealthy commuter towns and those frequent electric trains.
The sands seem smooth from a distance, but their dips and craters, fragments of dirt and life, soon show up as soon as you get close enough. Sand deeply ridged by the pull of the tide. Sand sucking down and piling up, devouring flimsy fences.
And there, revealed by collapsing, receding dunes, piles of odd chunky fragments of rubble shaped by years of tides. All this hastily dumped during WWII after the heavy Blitz raids on Merseyside, a temporary fix in an emergency with no thought for long term. Here they still are.
Jagged, bubbled lumps of aggregate sit next to once deep red angular bricks now washed pink and smoothed around the edges. Large, ominous looking chunks of concrete, their original purpose now lost, stand out squat amongst them. Here though clearly what was once two steps. There, the straight, carefully-laid remains of a wall, chunks of crumbling cement still futilely clinging to it. Rusting twisted spiders legs of re-enforcement stick out, escaping the pile where they can. Still a danger, these fragments of long lost buildings. A reminder of the terrible destruction of that war on the nearby city. This debris slowly, ever further, getting broken down. Now coloured pebbles. One day sand.
Freshfield is an outlet valve for the city. An easy place to go without needing a car to get lost amongst the many peaks and troughs of the dunes with yourself or others. There’s always a human craving for wide open space that overwhelms us. Reduced to our smallness when separated from our crowds and our constructions. Casting our shadows on the waters, footprints are soon smoothed away, as this landscape remains as indifferent to the human presence as it can. The remains of the war will take longer to disappear, but will do just as inevitably.
When the ships have stopped and the electric trains too, there’s just the wind and spinning of the distant turbines powering kettles and lighting lamps back in cities and towns. The space in Freshfield goes on and on and that going on is a deep reminder. A blowing away of the narrowness that we build around ourselves in screens and queues and buses and cracked paving stones. A reminder for when we go back to our urban lives where the wind has no sand grit nor strength to blast the eyes and the lungs.
Words by Kenn Taylor Images by Kenn Taylor and Chris Gibson
Two old cemeteries in two Northern English cities are as striking as they are little-known outside of their own regions. They are marked by their dramatic and very contrasting settings, one up high, one down below.
Liverpool’s St James’ Cemetery is the antithesis to the adjacent soaring Anglican Cathedral, which is one of the world’s largest. My infant grandmother was taken to the laying of its foundation stone by King Edward VII in 1904. A few weeks prior to this ceremony though, Fred Bower, a stonemason, poet and socialist, buried a tin time capsule under where the foundation stone would be placed. It contained the message “within a stone’s throw from here, human beings are housed in slums not fit for swine”. Accompanied by copies of the Clarion and Labour Leader, it was signed “Yours sincerely, ‘A Wage Slave’.” Bower only revealed this secret 32 years later in his autobiography, Rolling Stonemason.
On top of this foundation stone, at the crest of St James Mount, was built Giles Gilbert Scott’s vast edifice of a cathedral. It’s remarkably similar in profile to his Bankside Power Station, now Tate Modern. You have to admire a designer who sees the same basic shape works for both the House of God and the House of Electricity. However, the cathedral was built beside a precipice. The void below was originally a quarry for several hundred years. Its stone used for Liverpool’s first dock and Town Hall. With the city growing rapidly, the stone running out and demand for burial space increasing, the quarry was ideal for conversion. In 1826, architect John Foster Junior was commissioned to design a cemetery in the space along the same lines as Père Lachaise in Paris. Grand ramps to convey coffins down from street level were constructed. As was a mortuary chapel in the style of a Greek Temple, the Oratory. This still stands today as an occasionally opened museum of funerary sculpture. The area around the cemetery when it opened was packed with Georgian terraces, home to the city’s colonialist merchant class. Later it became one of Liverpool’s main multicultural and bohemian areas, home to John Lennon, Roger McGough and David Olusoga at various times, amongst many others.
The cemetery was well used over the following decades. As its space began to become exhausted though, this coincided with the search for a site for a cathedral. The cemetery’s use continued after cathedral construction started. However, by the 1930s, it was packed with gravestones and the population increasingly sought newer, plainer cemeteries out the suburbs, as the move away from the Victorian taste for death began. The cathedral had no interest in taking on the graveyard and St James’ closed in 1936 after 57,774 burials. Like many similar cemeteries around the UK, it began to fall into disrepair after WWII. By the 1960s it was in a real state of decay, frequently used by sex workers and their clients as it was close to Liverpool’s then red light district, before the area above was gentrified. In the 1970s the City Council came and cleared the majority of the gravestones. Many were stacked and covered in earth, creating an artificial slope. Others were made to tightly line the sides of the cemetery and even the interior of the snaking tunnel and walkway that takes you down into it. Other memorials still were grouped together in odd arrangements, presumably by Council workmen at a whim. Only a handful of the graves remained untouched. This however created much more green open space that was once dense with memorials. In 2001 the Archbishop’s Council and the Conservation Foundation set up The Friends of St James’ Garden to lead the preservation and the reclamation of the site.
Descending down the winding ramp of St James’, carved through the bedrock itself, could not be more gothic if you tried. It would seem like a B-movie film set if it were not so genuinely marked by the passage of time. The tunnel is cut through multi-coloured, multi-grained stone scarred by tools, strange, runic masons’ marks and carved graffiti with dates in the 1700s. Lined at ground level with those tightly-packed gravestones, To The Memory. In Memory Of. In Affectionate Memory. Now all those with memories of the dead are long gone too. It’s like going through the gullet of a HP Lovecraft story — thankfully though, a short one, as the tunnel opens out and light gets to you again, filtered through the many trees. It seems all the brighter illuminating the sides of old quarry that surround you, the dark grey-green walls shored up with yellow stone and brick. Many of the memorials themselves are so worn and unstable they have begun to be absorbed back into the landscape. Only those made of marble remain clear and bright, albeit cracked and stained. Down here there’s a feeling of being very far away from the world, even though it’s just on the edge of the city centre.
The dramatic ramps constructed for the horse-drawn hearses, with catacombs underneath, crumbling in places and with vines hanging over them, now look like the ancient ruins they were inspired by. Various ominous bricked up and barred tunnels lead off from different corners of the site. On the memorials, anchors, intense Masonic eyes, coats of arms and moons. Beyond the symbols, stories too. A few famous people. Edward Rushton, the blind anti-slavery campaigner; Kitty Wilkinson, the public wash house pioneer; William Huskisson MP, who helped make the world’s first inter-city railway happen. He would also end up being the first person to be killed by a train at its opening. His domed monument is by far the largest in the cemetery. The graves of all those old sea captains, but also children. Too many children. Several gravestones hold a long list of those who died in the Liverpool Orphan Boys Asylum. Aged 12, Aged 9, Aged 9, Aged 14, Aged 10, Aged 9, Aged 8, on and on. No poems or Bible quotes or symbols for them, just name, age, date of death. We may be equal in death but not in memoriam.
From a wall in the centre pours one of the few natural springs in Liverpool, with many different coloured bands of sedimental rock above it. When there are few people around, it is one of the few sounds down here and adds to the lost world feeling.
At the centre of St James’, the cathedral looms above, appearing even larger and overwhelming now you’re literally underground below it. In the evening, those sunsets which drape themselves over Liverpool flow down even into here, and the dark sandstone of the cathedral goes a deeper shade of red until the sun eventually dips behind it. Getting in and out of St James’ requires descent and ascent through that hand-carved tunnel at the city end, or through a solid stone arch atop a wooded hill at the Liverpool 8 end. Emerging out upwards to higher ground, but often no better light than can be found in this sunken place.
Higher still is another graveyard, way over the Pennines. Undercliffe Cemetery stands above Bradford with striking views across the city and the surrounding hills and valleys. Prominent in the distance is the vast edifice of Lister/Manningham Mills. Once the world’s largest silk factory, a strike there was a key event in the founding of the Independent Labour Party. Now, it is half converted to luxury flats and half empty. If that isn’t a symbol of much that has gone wrong in this country I don’t know what is. The well-known local photographer Ian Beesley has said you could once count 100 mill chimneys from Undercliffe. There are a lot less these days, but even now still plenty in the eyeline. Undercliffe’s origins are similar to St James’: built to meet the demands of another rapidly growing industrial city. A group of businessmen formed a joint stock company to deal with the increasing demand for burials. They purchased one hundred acres of the Undercliffe Estate in 1851 and the site was landscaped and planted, including a great promenade right through its centre with a terrace at the western end. It was consecrated in 1854 and even early on, with its fine views, the burial ground was popular as a park too.
Between 1854 and 1928, 105,742 internments took place at Undercliffe, but by then its use was in decline. The cemetery company eventually went into liquidation in 1977. During the next few years there was growing concern over the condition of the site and the Friends of Undercliffe Cemetery was formed. After considerable pressure, Bradford Council purchased the site in 1984, declared it a conservation area and sponsored a two year restoration programme. In 1985 a new cemetery company was formed and has since become the Undercliffe Cemetery Charity. Unlike St James’ though, plots remain available — you can still be buried in Undercliffe.
This high up the air is bracing and even when the atmosphere is thick, you can see some for distance. Lines of dark yellow Yorkshire stone terraces step-climb the hills in all directions in neat, slanting rows. In the valleys, the flat grey retail sheds that replaced the mills are themselves now often empty. The sweeping main promenade through the graveyard is as dramatic as its designers intended, flanked on both sides by towering graves. Whereas St James’ is sparse, Undercliffe remains dense. A forest of obelisks, urns and crosses, trying to outdo each other in reaching upwards to the sky. Unlike churchyards where rich and poor were buried side by side, the ability to pay governed the site of a grave in Undercliffe. Plots near the promenade were the most expensive. We may be equal in death but not in memoriam.
As to be expected in a city built on wool, textile makers and merchants have some of the largest graves, including the muscular Egyptian-style Illingworth monument, still guarded by two mini sphinxes and a carved Ra — a reminder that so much of this seeming ancientness was an affectation. Age gives it an elegance, but despite the quality, most of it was pretty basic following of fashion: a smattering of Celtic and Roman, Egyptian and Greek. Fashion always changes though, and now we’ve come a long way from even the rich having such elaborate graves. Many question if we want money to be spent after death on a chunk of marble with our name carved in it. At least back then there was more variety. From the dandyish foliage, fruit and swirls of the Behrens monument, to the solemn, almost modernist, column of architect William Mawson’s grave. Mawson was the co-designer of local landmarks like Bradford Town Hall, the Wool Exchange and Saltaire Congregational Chapel. Also buried here is Miles Moulson, whose firm built large portions of the famous village of Saltaire, and Joseph Smith, the agent who bought the land for Titus Salt that Saltaire would be built on. Salt himself was one of the sponsors of this cemetery. A full circle of the dead who built Bradford.
All the symbolic codes of these graves were once familiar to anyone walking past, and now they’re obscure. After only a handful of generations, we need a translation to understand much of it. Along with the more familiar crosses and slabs, there are veiled urns and weeping willows carved in stone. Cylinders, pillars, pediments. Prancing horses and clasping hands. As well as our lost understanding of these symbols, the information in English, despite best efforts, gets lost too. Letters worn. Texts cracked. Pieces sheared away. Names, even whole stones disappearing under thick, bright green grass. Vines wrap themselves around the needles of obelisks. Armless angels and headless saints. All the decay of course makes it more visually interesting — a fractured saint is more photogenic than a polished one. The enduring appeal of the mysterious ruination.
Old cemeteries such as these are amongst the strangest parks you’ll find. Given most urban areas have plenty of green spaces, why do so many people enjoy spending time in places intended to house the dead and provide for the occasional visit from the connected living? There is of course, the romantic, melancholic notions that such places can spark in us. What better way to contemplate your situation in life than being reminded of its shortness? Indeed, all our folly in trying to make permanent things, especially about ourselves. Such things are even more apparent in graveyards now largely shut down, less tended by relatives and where nature is doing its best to take it all back. Such notions of course are a little ironic when you consider the deeply practical and financial reasons both cemeteries were founded as private, for-profit outfits, mainly to benefit those with money to spare. A forbear of today’s public-private spaces. That said, many of our Victorian public parks themselves were founded in part to sell the big houses around them. Anything which looks old we can find all too easy to separate from its often practical, even cynical, origins by virtue of the grace that the passing of time gives.
Yet regardless of how they came to be, such places of romantic, if managed, decay, gives them a feel of being somewhere a little out of time and out of the commercialism that now intrudes into every sphere of life. Both these sites are popular perhaps just because they’re quiet spaces, with a sense of isolation from the wider world. Places high and low and away from the centre to escape the troubles and intensities of city life. Somewhere those with busy lives can briefly forget about them and those with time to kill can go for a while. More prosaically, both cemeteries remain popular with young people as places to indulge in their own lives away from guardians. Playgrounds amongst the dead.
The cities these cemeteries are in are no longer the commercial powerhouses they once were. Though along with the (sadly still more often than not) empty mills and dock warehouses that drove the need for such cemeteries, they are an echo of that time. Reminders that, however big the boom, the scale of wealth accumulated, or grand structures built, everything eventually goes the same way. To quote Geoff Dyer: “ruins don’t make you think of the past, they direct you towards the future. The effect is almost prophetic. This is what the future will end up like. This is what the future has always ended up looking like.”
One of my earliest memories is watching on television the fall of the Berlin Wall. Of course, I have other early memories of less geo-political consequence. But seeing the joy of the people stood on top of the narrow, graffiti-covered wall as they smashed it down, really did stick with me. Even if at the time I had limited understanding of what was happening or why it was important.
From then on, the Berlin Wall that no longer existed, held a fascination for me. My father had left school at 15 but had a huge knowledge of history and I absorbed this interest. While the Merseyside I grew up in was a place in itself where the weight of history was everywhere. The wall coming down would also have unintended consequences here too. The end of the Cold War meant a big drop in orders for the shipyard that Birkenhead had been built around. The yard’s subsequent closure was a devastating blow to the area. So many British towns are like this – trapped in a death spiral of dependence on a deeply cyclical defence industry for the want of anything else. Such places are usually where the military recruit from as well for the same reason. As Elvis Costello, who grew up in Birkenhead, wrote in Shipbuilding:
It’s just a rumour that was spread around town / Somebody said that someone got filled in / For saying that people get killed in / The result of this shipbuilding
I remained interested in Berlin as I grew up. Our school arranged its only ever foreign trip to visit WWII sites in Germany and Poland, including of course the now unified German capital. While I wasn’t sure my family could afford it, I was incredibly excited at the prospect. However, I needn’t have worried as my class was labelled the ‘bad class’ and not invited. Something which incensed me. Yet as an awkward young teenager I didn’t, as I probably should have done, march to the headmaster’s office and demand a fair deal. Rather I just took it as another sign that, even if history was one of the few things I was interested in and good at, there wasn’t much point in trying at school and I might as well piss around, so I did.
It would only be years later, after dropping out of education, going back in and eventually completing a degree, that I made it to Berlin. And I loved it. Returning many times since at different stages in my life.
Like most visitors to the city, I went to find traces of the wall which I’d watched the destruction of broadcast live hundreds of miles away. There are various fragments in different states of condition around Berlin. Probably the most prominent is the East Side Gallery, which was covered with murals in 1990 after the fall of the wall. It is also one of the most striking.
When I first saw the East Side Gallery in 2007, it was still on the fringe of a rapidly changing Berlin. Quiet, with only a handful of similarly interested tourists milling around. The murals, now around 17 years old, had faded and been tagged a great deal. On one of the murals had been written over in marker:
‘I am claiming this space. I am defacing the visual record of a history which is not my own. But why not? This sight is now a site which has been split from the continuity of Berlin culture. It is heritage which belongs to tourist culture. We are recording our own history, here, now, and I was here.’
This powerful statement was a harbinger of things to come. On repeat visits, I saw the area around the East Side Gallery develop more and more. When I returned 10 years on, the murals had been repainted, the site now visited by many more people. It seemed incongruous for such raw expressions from 1990 to be really bright and fresh again, even if necessary to preserve them. Huge construction sites lined the opposite side of the road from the wall, with developments all along the river Spree. A vast entertainment arena had been constructed and its illuminated advertising sign towered above the wall. To return only every few years and see this pace of change in snapshots was uncanny. While the negative impact of this aggressive speed and scale of development on some of Berlin’s communities is well documented.
I often thought though of that earlier statement written on the wall, dismissing its preservation as a relic for visitors. It would have been worse to prevent a new history being written around the site of a wall that has terrible memories for most Berliners. Just so as people like me could observe a place in the dramatic, run down state it held after the fall of the wall. That this once divided city was once again growing and attracting people and that day to day life was now taking place right over many sites associated with past darkness, was largely positive. Even if development should have been done with more care.
Another noticeable memorial to the wall are metal strips in the pavement which trace its line around the city. I took an early ‘shoe selfie’ over a section marked ‘Berliner Mauer 1961 – 1989’ when I first visited. As I was travelling on my own, it was a way of locating myself in the story my photos told. On later visits, I happened upon similar markers in different places and took the same shot. Creating my own personal record through time of my visits to this city. Shoes, jeans and me changing along with Berlin.
What way will history flow next? Will we see the rapture of people pushing back against capital’s seemingly intractable might, or will the walls start closing in once again? Whether we want to seek out history, or carry on regardless over it, we do need to remember what we hate and treasure from it. The Berlin Wall is gone, but it should linger in our consciousness like all dark history, as a reminder of the depths we can go to. The ghost of the wall snaking its way under pavement cafes and past entertainment arenas remains ever relevant, looming over all of us, not just in the city which it once cleaved in two.
Just how far out can you go in mainland Britain in terms of isolation? With a journey many miles down a long, empty, country road, an owl flying low at the windscreen at one point, and a long, single track road before you reach the destination, this place certainly felt like a candidate.
At the end of that private road there’s a luxury hotel. Not for the likes of you and me. I am here not as a real guest, but because a friend had bagged a job there.
Adjacent to a mighty loch, it is as rural a Scotland as you could possibly imagine. Scenery flowing off into the endless distance. Dramatic landscapes in every corner of your vision: mountains, forests, streams filled with huge glacial rocks. Orange highland cows. Even the multi-coloured moss seems dramatic.
In isolation, in a vast landscape, things seem to have greater visual power. A strikingly white solitary house. A lone, worn-out boat. A fallen tree. At this altitude, and with few buildings, the slightest change of light or shift in the clouds that touch the mountain tops is instantly noticeable.
The hotel itself offers luxury in such seclusion. Old red leather chairs, worn but in the way that loos classy, not knackered. A roaring fire in a grate, the size of a small car, surrounded by dark wood and polished brass. A table lamp in the shape of a stag. The hotel itself looks ancient, but in reality is a fake. A Walter Scott image from the Victorian era.
What’s it like to live out here? I fear that the quiet and lack of stimulation would drive me mad. But there is plenty to do. Walk. Swim. Climb. Build. Read. There’s television and the internet but even then, my friend tells me, you do feel distant from everything. Terrible things happening on the news feel like dark fairy stories from far off lands, rather than things that will reach you here.
This has an allure, like some Arcadian fantasy of times past perhaps. But then this place is predicated on selling that. Charging an astronomical amount for the experience of ‘proper Scotland’. The staff, while they may also appreciate the fresh air and idyllic location, have to labour most of the time while those paying to be here can just enjoy it all. Hike the hills, fly in helicopters, drive fast cars, drink expensive whiskeys. Though labouring here is, my friend assures me, much better than some of the other places we had both laboured.
Of course, we can’t afford to even eat in the hotel. Instead we go over to the nearby inn for a pint, before driving the long way back to the nearest town to truly catch up. Nevertheless, I can see the attraction of this place, of going out to the furthest reaches. If you really have the money, you can pretend the world is not like it is. And forget, perhaps, the role you played in making it that way.
– I never thought I’d live in the countryside. – This isn’t the countryside, it’s the edge of a city.
In Yorkshire though, the rural and the urban have a more indistinct relationship than elsewhere. Something not always appreciated by those born there. For those of us who moved in though, the ability to walk in an hour from Bradford city centre to, yes, up on a wild and windy moor, is not taken for granted.
The place that meant most though, was the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. I’d known the same waterway at its other end too. Liverpool though, is a river city, dominated in every way by the huge estuary. The canal there is an afterthought, just another body of still water amongst the many docks.
In West Yorkshire though, the canal has a central function, having helped define the districts and towns that it passes through. The shape of the cities too. When I shifted once more in my life, this time from London to the outskirts of Bradford, the Leeds-Liverpool became, by accident, hugely important to me.
Another canal, the Regents, had played a significant role in my brief time living in London. The dense urbanity of East London was exhilarating. To the point when I sometimes had to grip to manage the intensity of feeling. Like it had been in Liverpool too at its absolute best, but that was a deeper, more personal feeling of shared experience, communal understanding and expression. In London, it was an external force and you knew you were just a tiny cog spinning in it, which had its own allure. The canal represented calm in London. A long straight place to head along without a particular purpose. Somewhere to burn off energy when collected fears and ghouls and ideas threatened to overwhelm.
Moving from Bethnal Green Road to Bradford district meant no longer trains to Liverpool Street thundering past the front of my flat, instead expansive fields and skies. The canal though was a rare constant and still a place for mental space. In London, this had meant a deep walk through every shade of urban life, in that city now mostly polished to within an inch of its life. In West Riding though, it was a walk through increasing ruralness, striding into ever wider, open spaces. All along the way, the black and white mile posts at various angles of lean, reminding me that my origins in Liverpool were just a, long, walk away.
Without needing a car, the canal was a place to head where tension could be felt lifting from the shoulders, often with every step. Where tasks, troubles and frustrations could be put aside to go deeper about ourselves and everything else. On the surface, a straight graded route next to the murky mirror shimmer of water which required no thought or strain to navigate. Really though it is a winding, up and down route through the path of least resistance. The idea of this once deeply capitalistic functional waterway, now vintage leisure route, as a way of working out a way through lives which had involved some wandering and some extremes, was not lost on us. The passage of time felt slowed and so better to consider it.
It helped. Both of us. Not having to think about the direction helped us to figure out where we should be going. Sometimes, breathing in as we passed further out with nothing around but fields sweeping away in the distance into hills, that same exhilaration again. Where you almost need to grip something, but now, sucking in fresh air rather than the dense electric hum of the city.
There have been more moves since, but I find somehow the canal keeps coming back. A much needed place to pace along the path of least resistance and think about then, now, the future, nothing at all.
Lying on my back on a bunk bed, on a very long, very bare train. Going a very long way through a very bare landscape a long way from anywhere.
At this point, I’d been travelling on it for so many days, that whenever the train stopped and I briefly stepped onto the terra firma of a platform to buy food, I had sea legs. Well, train legs. So used to the constant shaking and rhythm of the railway journey that, removed from it, everything seemed unbalanced and off kilter.
Being on a train for so long, there is nothing but time. To be filled in many ways. Looking out for the arresting moments between endless tress and endless desert. Games. Chat. Drinking. Lots of drinking. Someone brought a laptop with downloaded films and music, which in back then seemed over the top and now seems like common sense.
With me always being a late adopter, I’d brought books. Although like everyone else I’d been very affected, if not traumatised, by the animated film, I’d never actually read Watership Down. She had recommended it in her usual passionate way, so I thought, why not get a copy for my travels. In what was no doubt another daft attempt at maintaining a connection.
So, with an incongruity recognised by myself and others, I found myself reading a novel about anthropomorphic rabbits filled with descriptions of the lush, green and wet English countryside, whilst sat on a train going through the depths of dry, summer, eastern Siberia. With this being August, Siberia of course was nothing like the snow covered images of popular culture. A week earlier we had sunbathed near the Kremlin. As you do. It was odd but all the more vivid to be down the, er, rabbit hole, of this book about the loss of an arcadian England, whilst being on the other side of the world in a moving metal box going through a striking but unforgiving landscape.
Of course, wherever you go though, you are still you. I dived into the depths of this book and this journey, trying to concentrate on reading whilst also sucking in the vast stream of everyone and everything going past. On this bunk in the quiet afternoon though, in the world of rabbits as the eternal human struggle, I still found myself thinking of her and the chest pressing gulp of the pain swept back in.
Back then though, the wider world seemed brighter. This journey just another example of it opening up ever further, ever faster. Here we were crossing continents, a multiplicity of backgrounds filled with camaraderie, in a world of expanding global interconnection, dialogue and understanding.
Yet the warnings of how thin a veneer this all was were already on display here. A guide telling us of the racism he experienced all the time. Russians more than happy with Putin telling us ‘we need a strong leader’. The call to Free Pussy Riot provoking indifference, ‘they shouldn’t have behaved like that in a church.’ No one likes us, we don’t care. What now stares us in the face as the growing threat to democracy in the 21st century was all there lurking in the background. We had thought then perhaps that this was just the leftovers of an old world that was dying. Really though, the post 2008 trauma was still just sinking in. The thwarted ambitions and dreams of millions, many struggling now even for a basic standard of living. Their sense of injustice ruthlessly diverted to other targets by those in power, so they could maintain the status quo, despite its diminishing returns for the majority.
The world has turned darker in the last decade. So many of the places we visited then, even if it still possible, we might not choose to now. Borders going back up. Minorities oppressed. Rights shredded. History coming roaring back to bite. Wherever you go, you are still you and you take your experience and culture with you. Sometimes though, what you see when you go elsewhere follows you back home much later.
Those 1950s American cars are a key symbol of Cuba under Communism, giving a bit of old glamour to all those Lonely Planet images and travel documentaries. They’re real enough, seen all over Havana. Many however are like ‘Trigger’s Broom’ – having had so many parts replaced they’re more new than old. There’s no denying though that they’re still cool. In Cuba, they are a key part of that desire for ‘difference’ that attracts people to a place. And their owners are only too keen to earn some extra cash taking visitors for a ride along the sea drive, the Malecon, under the sun and close to the spray of waves.
Less well photographed though are the Ladas. The reason the old American cars are still there of course, has largely been the lack of something to replace them, due to the ongoing economic blockade. Though now they’re so famous they are likely to always remain, as visitors will always want something of the past that meets their expectations. The Ladas from Mother Russia though, were the main replacement car for all those decades after the Revolution. They were popular locally for their ruggedness and relative modernity, though of course the Ladas themselves are now also ancient. While less well known as a symbol of Cuba, Ladas are a big part of the modest traffic that runs around Havana, in particular being used heavily as taxis.
I had little naivety about Cuba’s ‘alternative’ system. While there’s a general lack of the hunger and homelessness that marks much of the UK, in turn you are faced with a Government which tolerates no alternative political parties or dissent and heavily restricts its citizens. While basic needs are generally met, the standard of living is also low. Those old cars may have a certain romance and now a tourist income for their owners, but having to constantly repair a forty year old refrigerator has less allure.
The famous free education in Cuba also doesn’t always translate into liberation. In my final Lada taxi to the airport I spoke at length with the driver. He had a master’s degree in IT but saw little point in using it in Cuba when he could make more money by driving. As well as have more freedom, not having to work for the state. He talked about how he felt his education was wasted and how, like many, he wanted to leave. In turn he asked me about IT work in the UK. I said as far as I knew, it was well paid, but highly competitive. And that a lot of IT jobs were now being ‘offshored’ to other countries where labour was cheaper. He was aware also that we had to pay for university and asked how much it would cost to study for an IT masters. It took me a bit of time to work out the maths and then convert it into to Cuban currency. He was aghast at the expense. “Yes, it’s a real problem,” I said. “Especially if you’re from a poor background.”
We were pretty quiet after that as we did the final leg towards the airport, pondering the madness of our two systems. Neither of which anyone really believes in anymore, both slowly falling apart. This piece was published in Elsewhere Journal in September 2020.
The relationship between Liverpool and Ireland is well documented. The relationship between Liverpool and Wales less so, yet just as deep. At one point, Liverpool had the largest urban settlement of Welsh speakers. From teaching to building to retail, the Welsh were a key part of the region’s fabric. The National Eisteddfod was held several times in Liverpool and Birkenhead. Relations were not always cosy though. In particular when Liverpool Corporation constructed the Llyn Celyn reservoir over the Welsh speaking village of Capel Celyn, helping fuel Welsh nationalism in the 1960s. Liverpudlians too, were also part of Wales. From the earliest opportunities the working class had for holidays, Wales represented open space, clear air, leisure and countryside.
Even now, Liverpool may no longer represent the economic powerhouse for Wales, especially as Cardiff has grown, but it’s still the closest major urban settlement to North Wales. A place to study, to go out, to shop. While, despite the advent of cheap flights, Wales remains popular for holidays and days out. And both still hold a pull to each other, particularly for the young of each place, long after cars replaced paddle steamers as the quickest route between the two.
Possessing dramatic landscapes and cultures fired with passion and poetry, they are places separate but intertwined. Hills and tall buildings just visible through the distance on brighter days from up high. For populations with experiences so different, how each viewed the other was and is so much about perception, projection, longing. The Welsh idea of Hiraeth, is something many from Merseyside are also familiar with even if they couldn’t put a name to it. A bittersweet longing for homeland, for a lost golden age, even by those who never knew it or never left in the first place. A yearning to return to something which no longer exists, or maybe never did, but is a feeling which always remains.
In urban Merseyside, Wales is a place to escape to. Peace and space and blinding light. The intensity of openness. A bucolic place of nature, of school outward bound adventures, as much about crisps and kissing as mountain climbing and canoeing. Cheap, accessible holidays and golden if chilly beaches. The romantic weirdness of Portmeirion. Steam trains that go from nowhere to nowhere but at least the landscape looks pretty. This though, of course, ignores the vast holiday industry driven by Merseyside, Manchester and Birmingham, the undulating, boxy sea of caravans along the coast. There are the pseuds too who pretend they’re not tourists, that claim they come for the ‘real Wales’. What is real North Wales though? There’s the real of lakes, mountains and beaches, but also the real of intensive agriculture, nuclear power stations, Japanese factories and RAF jet bases. The holiday parks too are just as real.
In North Wales, Liverpool is a place to escape to, especially for the young. Noise and density and blinding lights. The intensity of urbanity. The possibilities are bigger in London of course, but also much further and harder away. Good times, clubs and music, different people and alternative cultures. Freedoms away from small town oppression. Anonymity and maybe even opportunity. A life closer to the edge, even if it’s easier to fall off. But of course, what is the ‘real Liverpool?’ All of this but also, pleasant suburbs, vast parks, technology hubs and polished shopping centres, like so many others. What both places have is a fierce awareness of themselves and their cultural uniqueness, but that sometimes blinds to what is more universal and what is shared. As well as that, living in cultures so strong, can create a drive for some to escape from it.
The city in the distance. The hills in the distance. The distance is what matters, near but far. Something to daydream of, to work towards, to long for. A projection in the back of the mind, both real and unreal. The closer you get, the more the longing fades and you begin to think what you saw in the distance was a chimera. The longer you stay, the more you think back to what you have left and realise, maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe. Fresh eyes. Hiraeth again. The intangible feeling.
And it is everywhere. Strive to break from hard lives or particular places and we find we always take them with us. When we achieve our escapism, we find it’s just another different reality. What we’re looking for has never existed and it never will. Yet we still always look for it. In the distance, just out of sight.