Monday, 14 September 2015

To Bede and Back: Stringing Bedes (2)

Beside the A19
“You are nobody to the hills or thick boughs heavy with greenery. You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the path, the caress of long grass and the freshness of the wind. When you walk, the world has neither present not future: nothing but the cycle of mornings and evenings. Always the same thing to do all day: walk. But the walker who marvels while walking (the blue of the rocks in a July evening light, the silvery green of olive leaves at noon, the violet morning hills) has no past, no plans, no experience. He has within him the eternal child. While walking I am but a simple gaze.”

-          Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking

Sunday starts in the car park of The White Ensign. At the top of the pub, as decoration more than functioning weather vane, is a ship. Before today, I have never seen it. I’ve driven past this pub, which now doubles up as a curry house, down King George Road, one of the main arterial roads connecting South Shields, hundreds of times, and I’ve walked down it many times, too. But to stand here, look up, and notice that it has a ship on its roof? I’ve obviously not stood here and just looked before.

Photo credit: Keith Parker
In a week’s time, I will be in Portland, Oregon; in a fortnight, Whistler, British Columbia; in three weeks, Vancouver; in a month, Cheshire. In four weeks I will travel further than Bede likely ever travelled in his lifetime.

Now,  looking back, I am thinking of all of this, twenty nine days after looking up at the replica ship on top of the pub, which is roughly half way between St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s, typing these words from a laptop in my flat in Chester, two more days before I once again travel: this time only 180 miles – but still, compared to Bede’s time, a considerable distance, which I will make much, much quicker than he could ever have envisaged – back to South Tyneside.

There’s a quote I’m looking for, but can’t find. Or a mantra; something discussed over both legs of Stringing Bedes and an idea that I’ve been mulling ever since. It goes something like this: the mind travels slower than the body; the mind may still be in a place the body has left behind.

Walkers on Cleadon Hills
I’ve been back in the UK just under a week. The jet-lag has been horrendous. Travelling out a month ago, landing in San Francisco, I was relatively unscathed. All sorts of theories, tips and advice abound as to how to avoid – or mitigate – jet-lag (East/West is best; sleep whenever you can/don’t sleep at all; eat these foods/don’t eat these foods, etc.) but the simple fact is that if it’s going to get you, it’s going to get you. At each intersection on my trip up the Pacific North West coast of the USA and Canada, I have left a part of my mind behind. Somewhere over the Atlantic, a portion of my brain is still suspended thirty thousand feet above the clouds.

So, in 2015, being a Westerner (as a Brit, watching news of the refugee crisis from hotels and B&Bs in North America, you quickly realise that your most important possession is your passport – that ticket to cross borders more or less at will) you can travel at all sorts of speeds, in all sorts of vehicles, covering great distances very, very quickly. We take this for granted, but what does it mean? What might the opposite – stopping in a place, or moving through it very slowly – mean for us?

On both legs of the Stringing Bedes walks, we stopped near the entrance/exit of the Tyne Tunnel to listen to the traffic. Once you’re on foot, and used to being on foot (ten minutes, an hour, you’ll soon feel your own rhythm), the presence of even a single car passing on a quiet suburban road sounds too much. Alongside the A19, the traffic is an onslaught; a physical shock to the senses. It becomes something absurd, actually. You begin to wonder, having picked wild cherries and plums from the streets, what it means to see giant Lidl trucks carrying pre-packaged, processed foods to be sold from huge refrigerators in shops across the region. You begin to wonder where all of the taxis can be taking people; where everyone is going and why they have to get there so quickly.

The mandatory trolley
Much of this dissipates, of course. You go to Tesco and the banquet of items laid out before you is more amazing than it is grotesque. You fill up your car (and if you do this in the States, you suddenly understand why the automobile is King), drive away, and the acceleration at your feet feels good.

But can moving slowly, at a walking pace that chimes with the heart’s rhythm – periodically stopping, not saying anything, not checking a phone and trying to clear your mind of the mental to-do list that keeps plaguing you and focusing instead on the call of a Chiffchaff – can that feel as good?

Bede himself may not have been a great traveller (we have some evidence that he visited the Holy Island of Lindisfarne), but his monasteries at Wearmouth and then Jarrow were founded upon a connectedness to the landscape that was not simply parochial: in seeking learning and enlightenment, the Abbots of Wearmouth-Jarrow looked, and often travelled to, Europe, bringing back bibles, sacred objects and sometimes even visiting scholars from places such as Rome, all for the benefit of their church communities. It is thought that portions of the glasswork in the monasteries may have come from the Mediterranean, where skills, techniques and resources were more abundant. The monasteries, with their strategic positions near the mouths of both the Tyne and the Wear, not only supported domestic trade and transport, then; they connected Northumbria to a wider European identity.

It really does smell like pineapple!
At all points during this project, it has been important to cross-refer our own thoughts and actions with those of the age of Bede. In traversing an ‘interpreted environment’, we do so knowing that we tread in the footsteps of all of those that come before us, bearing our own baggage. But how do we see Bede in this landscape, which we rightly assume to be very different to how it was in the seventh century? One of the ways, I think, is what we take away from it, with us, when we’re elsewhere. Along the route of the walks, I enjoyed the learning curve of the local flora and fauna. At the start of the walks, for instance, I had never heard of Pineapple Weed: didn’t know what it was, never mind how to identify it. After repeat sightings, however, I began to see it ‘automatically’. So much so, that by the end of the final walk I was, just as Keith Bowey had shown me a month earlier, readily picking it up and surprising people when I told them to crush it in their fingers and smell for the aroma of pineapples. I went on to see Pineapple Weed at various places along the Pacific North West coast: from the cliff tops of Harris Beach in Oregon, to the summit of Grouse Mountain in Vancouver, I seemed to be followed by these tiny, yellow weeds. And in a small way, I felt connected to Bede, because it was along Bede’s Way, a place I have spent large parts of my life, that I first learned about something apparently small and insignificant, which when witnessed in an entirely alien environment, made me feel connected.

On a beach in Northern Oregon, alongside a stretch of road that I can now barely remember except for its name – highway 101 – between small towns that I have little recourse to memorise other than for their coffee, their gas, their free toilets, I found Sea Rocket. Along the small formation of dunes at the Northern edge of Seaburn Beach in Sunderland, you can find the same genus of dune plant, nestled into small mounds of sand, tiny pink flowers jutting from rubbery stems. It is likely, in moving between the twinned monasteries, that Bede and his monks and abbots, having landed on this beach after sailing a coracle out of the Tyne and south down the coast past Marsden and Whitburn, would have encountered the very same plant.

Sea Rocket
As mentioned in the first of my Stringing Bedes blogs, periods of contemplation were a key element of the walks. Contemplation, though perhaps not as marketable as the somewhat zeitgeist trend for mindfulness, is a rare commodity in today’s hectic world. Perhaps because of the somewhat frenzied nature of my final hours on the last walk (I had to cut it short by two hours in order to get to the airport in time, whisked back in ten minutes – in a car, of course – to collect my bags in South Shields. What had taken just ten minutes in my Mam’s Peugeot had on foot taken four hours), and possibly because some part of my consciousness is still confused as to whether it should be in North America or the North of England, it has been a challenge to begin to do what this project’s namesake intends and string together coherent thoughts about Bede and his significance for a contemporary audience.

Invariably, my response turns towards my art form: poetry and writing. I consider some of the broad themes identified by both the other artists on the walks and the variety of people who joined us at one point or another. Looking back and recalling those discussions, it strikes me that the word ‘sense’ is perhaps the biggest brush stroke I could start from. I intend the double meaning, for the landscape is first sensed – we notice and attune to patterns in colours, recurrent soundscapes and smells – before it is made sense of. As children, we run excitedly onto the beach and dig our hands into the sand with a feeling of awe and wonderment as we reveal a receding layer of water below. We do this long before we understand anything to do with the sea, its currents, groundwater, tides or gravity. Our current sense of the world, however, tells us that the opposite is true: that we apply sense – logic, rationale, reason – to a landscape before we react to it ‘emotionally’. Take this, amongst many, examples, from Hawaii. It is one of countless stories of indigenous resistance to ‘rational’ science and the ‘sensible’ economic doctrine which seeks to augment everything with commodifiable use or value.

Lying in Cornthwaite Park in Whitburn, belly full of sandwiches and fruit, three, maybe four miles in my legs, sun warm but not abrasive on my face, the sound of the sea in the near distance lapping at the shore, the laughter of kids playing on the swings, I thought, is this not a moment of tranquillity that Bede would have been proud of? Yes, instantly transported to 2015, he would have been baffled, probably even terrified, by how the extent to which his world had changed, but lying beneath the trees in the park, the same sky above him, he might have just felt at home.

Looking south to Roker Pier from Whitburn Steel
Stringing Bedes: A Poetry and Print Pilgrimage is a Heritage Lottery Funded project exploring the landscape between the twin monastic sites of St. Paul’s, Jarrow and St. Peter’s, Wearmouth. Combining artistic responses to public walks with heritage and educational activities, its aim is to illuminate the world of Bede for a contemporary audience. I blogged about the first part of the project here, and further information can be gained at subsequent community heritage events, the first of which takes place on Wednesday 21st October at Roker Methodist Church in Sunderland.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Review: Everybody's Gone to the Rapture

Yaughton, Shropshire, 1984. “It’s all over”. Kate is “the only one left.”

And that’s how Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture begins: our protagonist – is it Kate, a spectral version of her, or someone, something, else entirely? – looking down from the gates of the observatory to fictional Yaughton below, its church spire and cluster of houses, an idyllic mid-summer glow inviting us in.

For a game in which we technically see no people; only their after-images, occasionally witnessed as ethereal snatches of whirling light, or hear their voices reverberated back to us through payphones and achingly anachronistic bricks of mobile phones, Rapture does an incredible job of detailing a cast of characters in an entirely believable mid 80s English village. Yaughton may be fictionalised – something between the Shire and Midsomer – but it feels like a place we’ve all been to, or seen on a post card, or heard an old Uncle sentimentally pine for. Immediately, the game brings to mind the recent ITV drama, Broadchurch (the ‘event’ having already happened); later I was put in mind, depending which locale of Yaughton I witnessed, and in which light, of everything from Stephen King’s Misery to Fumito Ueda’s Ico. Invariably, though, such comparisons do the game no favours; Rapture shines – and my, how it shines – because there is nothing quite like it, on TV, in film, literature or on console.

The fact that the game is set in 1984, obvious Orwellian nods aside, is not just an aesthetic choice on the part of developers, The Chinese Room. Yaughton’s mid 80s cast of parochial characters, their village hall with its production of Peter Pan (surely another nod?), their two quaint pubs (‘ale and a curry: £2’, advertises The Seventh Whistler), their pre-curve, pre-sleek cars, their fat televisions, their lack of internet, their... insular, squabbling village-ness, all of it feels deliberate. This is not a game that would have worked in contemporary London, or Tokyo, or just about any other city, for that matter.

Normally in a review, one would expect some recounting of the plot by about this stage. But here’s the thing: with Rapture, it’s all already happened. And that’s the beautiful simplicity of the game: you’re free to piece it together, liberally, as you drift around (and, make no mistake, you do drift, entirely ghostlike, in every sense) through deserted Yaughton, with its kitsch holiday camp and two-platform train station and not entirely un-Red Riding Hood woods, trying to work out what the Hell has happened to everybody.

For some, this momentum – or its absolute lack – has been too much of a barrier to the game’s enjoyment, but surely that misses the point. Yes, you can’t sprint; yes, you can move a little bit slower than dream pace if you hold down R2, but why would you want to? The real joy of Rapture is in the details: spending time exploring the houses, reading the signs in the bus shelters (items needed for fete; meeting to protest new observation tower; cast members needed for Peter Pan, etc.); marvelling as the light catches the canopy of leaves as the sun tilts and angles.

Drifting through the game – and there really is a sense that one does, a la Guy Debord’s Situationist Theory, ‘dérive’ through this landscape – the experience becomes more and more intense just as it becomes more and more lonely. While the player learns more – of the various characters and their back stories, their prejudices and their relationships – increasingly these revelations and plot twists, minor sub-dramas unfolding like snatched episodes of The Archers, begin to feel obscure, meaningless, and, ultimately, irrelevant. Even as the narrative shifts towards its ‘climax’, with the two central characters, Kate and Stephen, and their complicated motivations and actions spiralling towards the dénouement, the overriding sense of Rapture is that none of it matters; everything that has been will always be, and may be again.

Here, of course, is where the game’s various nods to astrophysics and philosophy could be mulled over, twisted, and mulled over again. Would we, in listing, probing and arguing over potentially limitless theories, ever reach a satisfying conclusion? I think not.

I ‘finished’ the game in around ten hours, but I suspect a second, and even third or fourth, play through would be an enriching experience, as I’m almost certain I didn’t reveal all of the ‘clues’ or find out all of the characters’ persuasions.

My enduring memory of Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture will be its superb blend of audio-visuals: the way, hovering between rugby posts, you half hear the game that played out days, weeks before; the way that air-raid sirens drift on the wind just as trails of light from the bombers they were warning against hang in the air like ribbons; the way payphones burr from incandescent red boxes and you approach them, never quite knowing where from, when or how the message has come to you. It’s the way you genuinely feel a chill on your spine as the balls of light, orbs of power, approach you and you tune and twist them, manipulating echoes of shrill then din, past voices back through their star gates, their portals. It’s the way you feel spooked yet comforted the first time it goes dark as you walk through the woods and tiny balls of light rise like stoned fireflies; or how the silhouette of the windmill catches against the universe of stars beyond and the brightness and otherworldliness of all the lights, strung out but coalescing, as you ascend the observatory.

When the final credits rolled, I put my controller down and closed my eyes as the choral soundtrack – that gut-wrenching, hallucinatory music which peppers so many of your encounters in the game – started up again. I sat back, not quite knowing what I’d experienced, but feeling a heady mixture of elation and sadness that it was over.