Touring the Six Realms

I had arrived at the ‘traditional centre of England’, Meriden, designated starting point for my tour of the Six Realms. As described in an earlier post, the plan was to “physically visit the Six Realms described in some Buddhist traditions, mapped on to the realm I live in (England)…taking a popular image of the ‘Wheel of Life’ depicting the realms, superimposing it on a map of England centred on the supposed mid-point of the country, then getting to places sited within each realm and recording my impressions.


Image: P. Roelli

The psychogeographical technique to be used is the ‘Finding’ approach described by Duncan Barford, ‘decide beforehand the outcome of the journey, and then look to experiences during the journey as the provision of that outcome’”. Available time and money meant that this was going to happen inland, starting from the centre, rather than spending several days on the coast. The larger pier trip seemed to be imploding.

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I spent the night at the Bull’s Head, which featured a brass plaque set into the parquet floor indicating that this was the spot. There was also a plaque on the nearby village green, by a market cross that had been relocated there as part of a programme of improvements to the green, during the Festival of Britain. I wasn’t too bothered about finding the exact centre, anywhere here was, as they say, ‘close enough for jazz’.

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The inn was pleasant enough: an old coaching inn on the London to Holyhead road. I ate fish and chips, and drank Pure Ubu, the name invoking Alfred Jarry’s absurdist hero Ubu Roi/Pere Ubu, Jarry who once wrote “It is conventional to call “monster” any blending of dissonant elements. I call “monster” every original inexhaustible beauty.”

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Meriden shop window

In the morning I looked at my map, on which I had sketched outlines defining segments that would be the ‘six realms’ for the purposes of this experiment. A provisional itinerary involved starting off by heading WSW into Animal Realm, then proceeding counter-clockwise to conclude in the Human Realm. I was flexible about how far I needed to go from the centre into each Realm and was taking into account points of access to public transport. Looking at the map, there was a bland segment of territory featuring roads, footpaths, rivers, farms, a railway. In a sense it didn’t matter which route I took as I had decided that whatever would be encountered would be the Realm in question – so there was no need to seek a particularly animalistic place. Neverthless, looking at a dead straight road on the map, I was reminded of Chogyam Trungpa’s description of the Animal Realm:

“The animal quality is one of purely looking directly ahead, as if we had blinkers. We look straight ahead, never looking right or left, very sincerely. We are just trying to reach the next available situation, all the time trying.” (Transcending Madness, p261.)

I could relate to this as a type of psychological habit, and also visualise an animal, or perhaps a zombie, simply taking the most direct route. Would there be a path alongside the road? If not, would traffic make it dangerous? I had no way of knowing, but decided to face any obstacles animal-style as they came up, and opted for the B4102 as the start of my tour.

I Walk the Line

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Unseen dogs barked as I started walking by the road, into Animal Realm. I took this as a good sign. There was in fact a footpath, somewhat overgrown so that branches would sometimes scrape at me as I walked past, but otherwise unobstructed. I loped along, aiming to simply focus on the destination, a village called Hampton-in-Arden where I would have to change direction and decide how to travel onwards.

I noticed some things on my straight path. Several empty cans of Carling by the road, seemingly fallen at regular intervals, as if thrown from a car in a timed sequence. An invoice from Matrix Bathrooms. In a lay-by, a soft porn magazine that looked new but was in fact over ten years old.

I arrived at Hampton-in Arden and sat for a while beside their war memorial. I had found a practice for ‘Emptying the Six Realms’ in a book by Ken McLeod (Wake Up to Your Life, p236) and had decided to attempt it in each of the realms visited. And did so, starting in this quiet spot beneath large dark trees.
I could have caught a train to the Hell Realm, but as the next one was not due for 45 minutes I decided to walk. Heading south east, I crossed some fields, skirted a large body of water and got slightly lost in some marshy, tummocky ground in a nature reserve. I entered Hell, uneventfully, beside the entrance to the West Midlands Golf Club.

Hot Suburban Windows

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I walked into Balsall Common, past a motel and into suburbia. There was no-one around, but I was naturally wary of a place where ‘nobody stays dead for long’ (McLeod, Ibid.); where ‘the only way hell beings deal with things that make them angry is through aggression — attack, attack, attack!‘ (buddhism.about.com) and where ‘people here are horribly tortured in many creative ways’ (BBC). However I was not walking through a scene from Bosch, just a normal suburb, similar to where I grew up and where I now live – but with larger houses. So how was this hell? I could conjure up some aggression about the houses being bigger and more expensive than mine, but that would be acting a part really. As I walked past endless houses and gardens I speculated that there could be a kind of codified aggression built in to all these homes, squatting behind their front garden displays and UPVC doors. I saw little evidence of the more spectacular descriptions of the Hell Realm, though a sign in a travel agent saying ‘We Sell the World’ provided a momentary glimpse of the Abyss.)

“The aggression does not seem to be your aggression, but the the aggression seems to permeate the whole space around you” – Chogyam Trungpa

As I walked up towards Berkswell station, large warm drops of rain began to fall.

Cupcake City

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I planned to take a train to Coventry. The wait was quite long, which gave me time to perform the McLeod meditation for Hell and to begin to think about the next realm I would encounter, that of Hungry Ghosts – a place of endless, unsatisfied consumption and continuous grasping poverty. After a while, people began to gather on the platform, building to a large group. Some of the Olympic games were being played in Coventry, and people were headed in to watch soccer matches. Recorded messages warning in general terms of potential delays played repeatedly. The train was a few minutes late, though as if to compensate no-one appeared at any stage to take fares. At Coventry station we were welcomed by people in ‘London’ Olympics livery, many with large foam pointing hands, and whisked along towards free buses. I considered going with the flow for as long as possible but decided to head for the town centre instead. Union Jack bunting had been liberally applied above the streets, and the annual Godiva Festival added to a carnival atmosphere.
I headed for a Waterstones (chain) bookshop, and wandered from floor to floor, focusing on the urge to consume the thousands of books. I breathed in the smell of the paper, remembering the sight of a hippy-type guy sensuously rubbing the pages of an open hardback on his bearded face, eyes closed in ecstasy, in Brighton WHSmiths circa 1974.
Rather than buy a book I joined a long queue in the cafe. As on most days I had a dull, time-specific craving for a milky coffee. Aping what I thought a Hungry Ghost would do, I ordered an over-the-top version of coffee with flavoured additives and a cream top, some artisan crisps and a cupcake. I found a quiet table, ate this sickening, empty and edible-glitter-specked lunch, and watched the bunting hanging against the bright grey sky.

No You Can’t Have That Sticker Album

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Leaving Coventry, I got train to Bedworth, a town just south of Nuneaton. From there I planned to walk to a motel where I had booked a night’s stay. The train took me into the realm of the Jealous Gods, or Titans, or ‘nongods’ where envy, competition and paranoia permeate the landscape. The light was fading as I walked up the high street of a typical market town, devoid of quaintness. I stopped for a drink in The Bear and Ragged Staff, a Wetherspoons pub. Normally I like these, but the brand didn’t work for me this time – the beer was rank, the service unhelpful, the clientele seemingly over the horizon of drunkenness. I moved on through the town, steadily climbing a hill, stopping to buy mints at a convenience store beside a garage. A little boy wanted his mum to get him a sticker album, but she refused because you just had to carry on buying the stickers and it would be a waste of money. (Having failed to complete an Olympic sticker album in the 70s, I would have to agree.)
I arrived at the motel, a Premier Inn with adjoining Beefeater restaurant, which turned out to be a house where George Eliot once lived, the building and surrounding landscape the inspiration for elements of The Mill on the Floss: I was now in one of the texts I had walked past, unknowingly, in the hungry bookshop.
I had a meal and sat outside for a while with a glass of wine, watching cars and lorries circling the A444 roundabout. Beyond the shrubbery I could see the shallow steel angles of the Bermuda Business Park’s units.

Workwear Titans

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In the morning I set off early and skirted the Bermuda Park, walking as a lone pededstrian on a delivery road. I was on the Centenary Way, a signed long distance path that I planned to use for few miles, to travel from this Realm of Jealous Gods into the Realm of the actual Gods. It crossed the A444 on weed-grown road that felt like the straggling end of roads; roads giving out having done their job. Then I was on normal streets again, in a modern housing estate. I saw two figures walking towards me – a surprisingly tall couple. The guy had dreads, rather like Ronon Dex in Stargate Atlantis, while the woman was blonde and so thin she seemed elongated. Their clothes were odd, something like Goth or fetish wear but with a utility, functional look, pockets and clasps configured for some unfathomable task. ‘At least these look like gods’ I thought, pleased to encounter a direct manifestation of the nature of the territory.
I found where the path left the estate for the more rural parts. As I passed through a gate, I saw a dark face peering at me from an upstairs window. I looked directly at the person, they looked back steadily. Then I was shielded from the gaze by bushes.
I walked on. The morning was grey and damp.
Seeing a hill beside the path, I scrambled to the top to get a better view. Looking back towards the Bermuda Business Park, I saw a huge building dominating the landscape.

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I later discovered that this was a Dairycrest distribution centre, dedicated to the packaging and dispatch of Cathedral City, ‘the Nation’s favourite cheese’. According to te Dairycrest Annual report for 2011, the cheese is produced in Davidstow in Cornwall, which as is pointed out in Wikipedia ‘has neither city status nor a cathedral’, so this vast building is probably the most cathedral-like structure involved in the process. Although not technically a spiritual building, a kind of magic is accomplished there, as the raw material of the incoming cheese is rendered profitable by the addition of signs and symbols. The cheese is a hugely popular brand, so every day there are millions consuming the ‘cathedral city’ meme, the name and logo hyperlinking the cheese-eaters’ cortices to images of Barchester, Barchester, Starbridge, Felpersham, Kingsbridge, Polchester; airy cities of tradition, gulls wheeling above artisan-restored spires, bells ringing out over centuries and aged clerics hurrying along half-timbered streets. And the meme launches here – in the centre of a landlocked Bermuda Triangle.

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The Centenary Way took me through fields and around the outside of a school. It became hot. Thirsty, I hiked through an outer limb of Nuneaton so that I could get water from a shop. Then I was climbing quite steeply towards Hartshill. In the country park I would cross into the Realm of the Gods.

Centre of Excellence

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I sat on a bench on a hill in a light drizzle in Hartshill Hayes Country Park, for me also the edge of Deva-gati, the Realm of Devas and Heavenly Beings. This Realm sounds like the ‘good’ one, but these gods sound like deluded beings, living in bliss that is so comfortable they fail to attain enlightenment. They are also invisible, having evolved beyond mere corporeal form, so I did not look to the other people out walking for signs of godhood – the family group that walked past, grandchildren playing with a dog that had acquired burrs on its coat, were I thought, no more or less divine than I was. I performed the meditation, invoking the state of spiritual self-satisfation and static bliss described in the texts, gazing into the ‘magnificent view’ provided by my vantage point in the park, a recipient of ‘the Forestry Authority’s ‘centre of excellence’ award’.
Then I walked through the woods of excellence, across some countryside and into Atherstone, town of the Gods. The sun was shining past black clouds. I had a suitably nectar-like pint in the Market Tavern, then got a train to head for the Human Realm.

Leaf Remembered

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Arriving in Liverpool, the city nearest to where I live, I wandered towards Bold Street. I was back in familiar land, which seemed appropriate for the Human Realm, where ‘human beings…want to strive, consume, acquire, enjoy, explore’ (buddhism.about.com). Here, unlike in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, desire might temporarily be satisfied – hence the unending practical busyness of everyday life. I went into Leaf, a cafe decorated with an artfully mismatched profusion of retro-chintz filtered through a veneer of coolness. An Instagram kind of place. It had been suggested that this type of style could be used for an exhibition stand we were planning for work, so for a while I ran the mental routines of my employment, evaluating the applicability and utility of what I was seeing for a future purpose, judging, planning, sorting. Then I came back to where I was, tasting my coffee, letting the noise of the place wash over me, watching the powdery light from the street angling into the cafe. I did the meditation, drank the coffee until only a trace of foam was left.

And the trip was done. I had been to the centre and invoked the Six Realms, been to some places I had never been and returned, seen pierced Titans and walked in damp woodlands of the Gods. I had messed around in the Midlands, drinking beer and scribbling in a notebook. In the Buddhist tradition, the Human Realm offers the best possibility of liberation – every day I practiced, and for all I knew the quiet catastrophe of awakening was happening in my future, as natural an occurrence as the loss of milk teeth, as a strand of hair growing out silver. “Liverpool is the pool of life,” wrote Carl Jung, having dreamed himself into the city; “it makes to live.” Now it seemed that I was here too. Leaving Leaf, I walked towards Liverpool One as afternoon light faded. Bought myself a pair of shoes and thought yes, thanks, that’ll be fine for now.

Black Jack Summer

It seemed like a good day to travel to the traditional centre of England. It was the Saturday after the opening ceremony of the ‘London 2012′ Olympics, a vast and emotive spectacle that had come as a another chapter in what seemed like an unending sequence of state-sanctioned celebrations. Earlier this year the Jubilee had seemed vulgar and intrusive – though having lived half a century as a ‘New Elizabethan’ I felt entitled to some kind of celebration, and had bought a spiffy pair of black Union flag cufflinks to wear to a function which, disappointingly, featured a monarch impersonator whose act had to be curtailed due to rising levels of audience conversation.

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As for the Olympics, I shared the alarm felt by many at the tinpot-dictatorhood surrounding the event; the ‘short-term annoyance and long-term devastation‘; the expense incurred at a time when public spending was being cut and daily life seemed to be deteriorating, fear blooming in the corners. Although I hadn’t seen the opening ceremony, opting instead to watch episodes of Canadian drama Being Erica on DVD, I had experienced it at a distance online and, even through the filter of other people’s descriptions, had been moved by it. Fervour and despair mingled in my veins like strong wines.

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I caught my first train in the late morning. The weather was cycling through various modes, by turns hot, cool, wet and dry. It was good to be cutting loose, making some kind of pilgrimage again. And yet I felt cumbered with stuff, two bags hanging on me like panniers on a donkey. Whereas Ishmael would stuff ‘a shirt or two’ in carpet-bag and go to sea, for my three-day trip I had about my person

  • Digital map centred on Meriden, the ‘traditional centre of England’ (print-on-demand from Ordnance Survey)
  • Walking shoes (North Face ‘Hedgehog’)
  • Box of pills (x6 varieties: made by Sandoz x2, Consilient, Teva x2, Actavis; box Muji)
  • Camera (Panasonic Lumix)
  • iPhone (Apple)
  • Charger and lead (charger no-brand, lead Apple)
  • Watch (Casio-416, beloved of hipsters and millions wanting a cheap watch; the ‘Guantanamo watch‘)
  • Ballpoint pen (Bic)
  • Pencil (Paper ♥ Mate)
  • Pencil (Staedtler)
  • Notebook (Moleskine)
  • Book: Transcending Madness: The Experience of the Six Bardos by Chogyam Trungpa
  • Book: Wake Up to Your Life, by Ken McLeod
  • Comic: Commando 4518, ‘Stay on target!’ by Allan Chalmers, Keith Shone, Ian Kennedy
  • Jacket (Baracuta Harrington G9 ‘natural’ colour)
  • Polo shirts (Fred Perry and Baracuta)
  • Jeans (M&S)
  • Underwear (M&S)
  • Socks (Hi-Tec)
  • Showerproof coat
  • Spectacles (Specsavers ‘Osiris’ brand)
  • Toothpaste (Colgate)
  • Toothbrush (Boots)
  • Messenger Bag (Eastpak)
  • Man-bag (Eagle Creek)
  • Wallet (Jack Wolfskin)
  • Cards entitling me to travel, giving access to money or debt
  • Cash from the Edge Hill all-fivers cashpoint
  • Train tickets (Virgin)

as well as things it would be hard to dispense with

  • Tattoo ink suspended in my arm
  • Chest-bone wires
  • Fillings.

So I was a mobile congeries of stuff – stuff created by various entities, bearing many names, that had been assembled in many places – China, Vietnam, India, USA, UK – from materials that probably came from many other places. A temporary focal point, perspiring with the weight of it all. It would be nice to travel around like thriller character Jack Reacher, carrying only a toothbrush and throwing clothes away as required. But most of my stuff felt essential, even the mobile library.

The train passed the remains of the Paradox, once a nightclub in a Vernons Pools building – now a square ruined tower with stopped clocks facing the four quarters. (Paradox is well-explored on this Derelict Places site.)

I changed train at Sandhills. There was a guy with a bike, drinking a can of Special Brew, its sweetly pungent odour spreading along the platform. His face was striated with scabs, punctuated with stitches. He made several phone calls, describing an accident, how his eyebrows ‘had to be superglued into place’, how they would ‘see the road lines’ in his face.

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The next train came and the journey continued, through a series of Liverpool stations. It was hot and bright, like an imaginary summer. Buddleia was in bloom, filling neglected junctures in masonry and at the edges of waste ground. Flashback to one of Jane Joseph’s illustrations for Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, a sequence drawn from life, landscapes and objects in modern England used as surrogates for a long-ago remembering.

I carried on looking out, through my Osiris-lenses.

On a plant high on a bridge, a red balloon, half-deflated.

Six Realms: guides wanted

After a long break, I plan to get back to pier-visitation in the summer. The plan is to physically visit the Six Realms described in some Buddhist traditions, mapped on to the realm I live in (England). This involves taking a popular image of the ‘Wheel of Life’ depicting the realms, superimposing it on a map of  England centred on the supposed mid-point of the country, then getting to places sited within each realm and recording my impressions.  The psychogeographical technique to be used is the ‘Finding’ approach described by Duncan Barford, ‘decide beforehand the outcome of the journey, and then look to experiences during the journey as the provision of that outcome’. 

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Image: Maren Yumi

The SIx Realms can be thought of as metaphors, psychological or spiritual states, destinations for rebirth. For me they will become tourist destinations. 

My initial assumption is that I live in the Human Realm. Siting the others accordingly, by rotating the mandala and drawing lines, I have a set of territories to visit during a week’s leave. As bikers and scooterboys know well, seaside piers make great destination points for journeys and I’ll incorporate as many as I can. These could include

Aberystwyth (Hungry Ghosts)

Any between Penarth (Cardiff) and Southampton (Hells)

Any of the south coast ones – Bognor, Brighton, Eastbourne, Herne Bay, Gravesend… (Animals) 

East Anglia, eg Great Yarmouth (Titans)

Cleethorpes (Gods)

perhaps returning to the Human Realm via Blackpool

I’m working on an itinerary for week commencing 25th June – if any psychogeographers, chums, or other benign entities would like to meet up along the way let me know. 

Saltburn 2: 360 at last

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On the second attempt, I’ve managed to take, develop and scan 360-degree pictures of Saltburn pier using the Lomo Spinner – the camera of choice for this trip as explained here.

The results are…OK. The whole set is on Flickr, and here are my favourites.

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These pictures are pretty much uncontrollable given the process. In many ways I prefer the pics I take with my ‘normal’ Lumix, or even on my phone:

Saltburn Pier

On the phone front, I’ve started adding pictures to Instagram, which offers the option of adding filters to images – including ‘Lomo-Fi’, which makes pictures look as if they have been taken with a Lomography analogue camera. And with a better phone I could do 360 shots much more simply. And probably add a Lomo-like effect. And upload everything to the web before I walked back to the end of the pier. So I could achieve more satisfactory results, just by using a phone, rather than messing about with film and toy cameras.

So will I put the Spinner on eBay, then?

Probably not. I quite like juggling all these different photographic toys. Although I can never quite feel part of the Lomography culture (all those happy gangs of kidults in cargo shorts larking around in the surf) the Spinner appeals to my sense of ritual. It’s as if I was setting out to visit every pier and bless it by swinging a censer of incense around. And Instagram, despite the sense of being controlled by the Man that comes from using its pre-set effects, offers a way to look at the world through a fly’s eye stream of other peoples’ images, so hooray for that too. So I’ll just keep clicking away with everything hat comes to hand and trying to make some sense out of the results.

To conclude, here is a still from an earlier coastal excursion, Super8 film taken in 1983, photographed at the time and now scanned, uploaded and embedded for your viewing pleasure – me beside a now-vanished coastal feature, the Shoreham B power station.

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Saltburn Revisited 1

So I’m doing repeats already, but there are reasons…
1. The Royal Mail lost my films from our first visit, back in June, so I hadn’t managed to get a 360-degree Lomo shot of Saltburn pier
2. We wanted to see Lynne Wixon’s Littoral Structures exhibition at Artsbank.
So we went back on a Friday in August, driving over rainswept Yorkshire Moorland to stop at a Premier Inn in Stockton-on-Tees.

As is often the case, rowan trees surrounded the motel, a traditional charm against evil – perhaps recommended by some corporate consultancy mage.

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We drove into Saltburn for the opening of the exhibition and wandered around for a bit, looking for somewhere to eat. Despite only having visited twice, I feel strangely at home here, perhaps because the yellow-brick Victorian buildings resemble those found in parts of Hove, near where I grew up.

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After dinner in Signals Bistro, we went to the exhibition. Lynne plans to travel around the coast painting ‘representations of manmade structures found along the shoreline’ – literally (or littorally) a fellow traveller. The paintings are spare without being stark, lines and blocks of colour building the structures she chooses to paint into vast spaces of coastal light. The various huts, jetties, pilot stations and sheds face the viewer straight on, like the subjects of enigmatic portraits. Lynne is still near the start of a clockwise trip that will end up in Cumbria – it will be interesting to see what she finds further round. We bought a print.

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After yet another purple-cocooned Premier night, we drove into Saltburn again on the Saturday morning. As on our last visit, it was chilly and gray.

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This time we ate in Real Meals, where we had a sort of Platonic ideal of breakfast, where every element – smoky back bacon, a single large field mushroom, free-range eggs – were perfect embodiments of their form. While we ate, Jennie kept reaching down arcane condiments from the well-stocked shelves, moves in a spicy chess game.

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My love for Saltburn was getting out of hand – where was the catch? Would it turn out to be run by a sinister Number Two figure, or populated by androids? With its Jewel Streets, myth-laden house-names (‘The Crypt'; ‘Asgard’) and helpful shopkeepers it had a sort of pocket-heaven feel to it…

Time for business. I went down to the pier.

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Beneath the pavilion end, pigeon feet had made a textured landscape.

Sane beneath Saltburn Pier

I hung around waiting for one of the small blue gaps in the cloud to reach the sun, but this never happened. I took pictures while I waited…

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Then I climbed a small hill at the edge of the town to get a view back over the town. From there I could see Jennie as a tiny figure walking down the hill. I clambered down to meet her, then we walked up Happy Valley in the soft rain. Idyll fully installed, we drove home… Hopefully my film pics will survive this time (unless Saltburn doesn’t actually exist fully enough to show up on analogue film) – hope to post them next week.

North Wales: candyfloss drift

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For the first time in ages, I got the early train from Ormskirk. A dawn flit, slightly mazed with little sleep, hurtling towards some gonzo geography. I could actually have gone later as the online timetable had given me a substantial block of time to get the Chester train. So I went in search of coffee, negotiating Liverpool Central by an unusual route that took me outside via some gravelly Zen gardens, delivering me to the shop with the blissful utility of an automated Costa machine. Then, two train rides got me to Bangor by just after 9.30am. It was a Monday in August, and I was taking leave I had booked, though it still felt like playing hooky (UK: bunking off) somehow.

Bangor is another place I have never been to. I didn’t like it. On a grey morning out of termtime, the streets seemed spattered and shabby. A 100-year-old university building dominated the skyline, a glowering fusion of castle, cathedral and college. In the shopping centre, bright M&S graphics seemed, in an obvious way, incongruous.

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I walked down towards the pier, seeing for the first time the official brown-sign icon for ‘pier':

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Then there it was – oriental onion-domes gleaming in a brief break in the cloud. Interesting to think of this pleasure-seeking projection into the sea, and the huge house of knowledge on the hill, had appeared within a twenty-year timespan – education and tourism changing the town irrevocably.

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Bangor Garth Pier

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No-one was collecting money, and none of the kiosks was open on a Monday. I promenaded to the end with a few fellow strollers in the immense quiet of the Menai Straits.

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Along the way I saw many memorials, to people, pets, and ships.

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Stretches of railing, kiosks and the tea room were all In Memory, with hundreds of functional etched inscriptions and some DIY additions.

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Brighton’s West Pier was once described by Patrick Hamilton as a ‘sex-battleship’; using a similar analogy, this pier could be a ‘death-freighter’. This is perhaps not the impression desired by the local tourist authority, but that’s how it worked for me, as a wandering misery-guts/hedonist on a diffident mission. In my personal gazetteer, it is a quiet home for Angels of Death.

Beaumaris Pier

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Next on the agenda was Beaumaris. This required a short bus journey, crossing the Menai Straits on to Anglesey. By contrast with Bangor’s pier-mausoleum, Beaumaris seemed like a monument to life. In the throes of redevelopment, the pier was nevertheless busy with anglers and visitors. A circus had been here until the previous day, and there were still posters around for the ‘ALL-HUMAN SPECTACULAR’.

And back on the bus, glimpsing Bangor pier from the vantage-point of the bridge, and a lovely piece of unlicensed University branding on a takeaway shop sign.

I now had two piers under my belt, both achieved in a morning. Together with Llandudno, I had walked on all of the working piers of North Wales. I decided not to call it a day, but to break my return journey at Colwyn Bay. It turns out that one can still do this with the return half of a ticket – even the automated barriers seem to understand.

Colwyn Bay Pier

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Colwyn Bay pier has been closed for a while, its history an unhappy one including a hunger strike and accusations of corruption. This pier seems to be in limbo, clearly decaying and with no clarity as to who owns it.

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And yet it offers the eternal promise of the walk towards the horizon, of play and comfort. Like most piers, it has a long history of adaptation and change – Pavilions burning; the Dixieland Showbar, where the Damned once played, becoming a disco; the whole thing becoming a ruin. Hopefully it still has enough life left in it to evolve into something else.
I took what pictures I could, unable to walk on it or even under it – the beach was fenced off, and in fact a panel had fallen from the pier days before, making the news.

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Apparently there are Eric Ravilious murals inside the pier pavilion. I could not see these, but a few minutes later I was admiring a mural painted on the space where the screen would have been in the nearby Princess Cinema, now converted by the J D Wetherspoon chain to the Picture House pub.

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A news screen glimmered beneath the mural, relaying soundless news of riots unfolding in London. While I roamed the coast archly observing transformations effected by tourism, regeneration and the Wetherspoon corporation, currents of protest, greed and violence were transforming city centres in other ways. Over the coming hours and days, many of us would find our concepts of the city and ‘England’ pulled apart, requiring reconfiguration and repair. Lens flare in the video capture of burning cars and buildings formed shifting areas of white-out on the TV, cutting through the special gloom of an afternoon drinking session. A subtitle saying ‘let’s get more on the Eurozone crisis’ had jammed on the screen, making a collage-connection with larger forces. It was still there when I finished my pint and left.

Rhyl: site of former pier

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It was still quite early, so I stopped off again in Rhyl, idly fancying the completion of a set. The town is seeking to regenerate its way out of high unemployment, with a new college, a funfair and the ‘Drift Park development’ all underway; invoking education and fun (‘more things to do than you can shake a stick of candyfloss at!’) as tactics, an all-human defence against the days and nights of running and shouting, the smoke of burning tyres, the unravelling.

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The pier had been demolished in the 1970s, but I visited its site anyway, an imagined line into the sea projecting from a stretch of sandy beach. Black clouds were moving swiftly, so that rain and sunshine alternated by the minute. A recorded voice from the Seaquarium spoke of the ‘cold depths of the abyss’. Fine sand blew in over the beach, toward the promenade and the town.

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That’s all. Here, you can look at all the pictures if you wish.

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A tip of the kiss-me-quick hat

Based on decades of experience, my favourite type of superhero comic is the team-up, where characters from different strips get together as allies. The more disparate the characters the better, as it creates an intriguing ‘what if?’ effect if the stories combine different timezones, genres, or styles (Batman and Sgt Rock; Spiderman and Werewolf by Night; The Punisher and Archie for instance.)

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When I was a kid the announcement of Superman vs Spiderman drove me nearly insane. Not only were the characters published by different companies, they came from different and fully-developed fictional universes, each with their own geography, flow of time, laws of physics, theologies and implicit rules of storytelling. I lay awake wondering how these would be resolved, one time even dreaming that the characters were hurtling towards me down a long science-fiction-style tunnel lined with incomprehensible devices…

The actual story was rather disappointing as it dodged all of the incompatibility issues; the characters simply met up. It was just taken as read that neither they or their vast supporting casts had ever met before; Metropolis and New York both fitted on to America somewhere; the relatively realistic Spiderman was meeting a guy who could pull planets on chains and had a menagerie of super-pets. Despite this disappointment I was still excited by the next big team-up – (“‘Superman vs Muhammad Ali’? How will that work?” etc.) and so on until today (“I wonder who’s in the next part of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?”).

So the possibility of participating in a senses-shattering team-up myself – right here, in the real world – holds considerable allure…

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While I have just started a glacial progression around piers real and imagined, younger, fitter men are planning to get round the whole lot in a two-week Odyssey that has been described as ‎”On the Road” meets “On the Buses”.

Piers are the phallic symbols of our desire to own the motherly sea; our Victorian forefathers covered them with the lace dressings of amusement to prevent the working class getting too excited. Since then they’ve rotted slowly, like Britain’s empire and its self respect.
Those from Birmingham are perfectly placed to write about an ephemeral British seaside because that’s what the seaside is to them: a ghost, a Vaseline-smeared Shangri-La cobbled together from Carry On films, hazy childhood memories and nostalgia for a bygone era.

This looks fantastic. And you can support their heroic efforts in various ways – details on their site.

Presumably the tour will include one of the piers near me – so if at all possible I’ll try and hook up with the Pier Reviewers, colliding worlds in the pier-visiting team-up of the century.

Southend redux

Let’s try that again. Working with my Canon 9000f scanner was driving me wild, as most of the pictures had coloured bands running through them, or random colour-casts. Turns out this was something I was doing wrong, concealing some kind of sensor doodad by laying film over it. (Here is the explanation of the problem.) By cutting the negs up I’m now able to get pictures that resemble more closely what’s actually on the film. There’s an irony to using an analogue camera which produces results that need to be digitised in order for anyone to see them, but there you go, it’s a fallen world. So here’s a do-over of my Southend trip:

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Exposure is still a dicey business, as the pictures usually have very light and very dark areas. I expect if I get into Photoshop I could do more with this but hey, as well as my day job and writing up my previous walk I want to get round some piers, so perhaps these crude efforts will have to suffice for now.

You may notice that I am wearing a stupid hat (even in the improved versions of the images):

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- to which I would reply ‘Heh, you should hear what my wife says about it.’ But it was fun at the time and if you can’t wear a stupid hat at the seaside, where can you wear one? Promenading in the sun as a different man – one who would wear that hat, and that shirt, proudly showing off my normally besuited, skinny arms (+ tattoo, + scar) – was half the fun.

Llandudno – borderland to wonderland

Looking at the previous posts, the mixture of the 360 analogue photos with the ‘normal’ digital ones seems a bit uncomfortable, like mixing cross-ply and radials. So this time, I’ll give you all the 360 pix first then (for the die-hards who scroll down the page) tell the story of the trip with the digi ones. So here goes:

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I like the way the optics here compress the pier into a kind of island or ship, loaded with fun.

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My favourite of me as ‘existential pier man’

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OK then. So I snatched a day off on what turned out to be the sunniest day of the summer. My first errand involved a trip to work, the Edge Hill University campus, once described as ‘Ballardian’ by a visiting author.

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Got the train from Ormskirk to Liverpool Central, then changed to the Wirral Line to go to Bidston on the Wirral, and from there to Shotton. I was now at the outer reaches of the Merseyrail network, where the familiar coloured lines end and obscure grey ones begin. Beyond Shotton, I was interested to see that the track taking me into Wales was named the Borderlands Line, suggesting that I might be going to experience the ‘liminal’ states of transition often referred to by geographers writing about the seaside and spiritual writers writing about ‘thin places’. My textbook for the day however was neither or both of these: The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie by Keith Brooke, in which a teenage boy daydreams an idealised version of his home town into existence. People who don’t have roles in his preferred version of reality hang about under the pier and Frankie must face down the Owner who ultimately seems to control his dreamworld.

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I reached Llandudno, like Saltburn and Southend a place I have never visited. In Waterstones I scanned the ‘local interest’ section, learning that Alice ‘in Wonderland’ Liddell used to have holidays here. I went to (pub chain) Wetherspoons Palladium, a vast converted theatre that has also been a cinema and a bingo hall, for lunch. The boxes are still in place but with printed cutouts of Edwardian-looking theatregoers instead of real audience members; the ‘stage’ they watch is a large space with more tables for drinkers. If as a young man I had envisioned an ideal town like Faraway Frankie, mundane buildings becoming pubs with many real ales and cheap all-day breakfasts could well have been a feature. Perhaps I could have wished for something better, but I’m not complaining: Wetherspoons establishments form handy bases on these expeditions, and seem precisely calibrated to my needs and desires, from locally-styled alcohol to low-fat meals.

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Refreshed by my sojourn in the Spectacle I headed towards the pier. It has a hotel at the land end, and has been designed so that the pier’s attractions start on land; as one walks along the actual pier begins. The hotel, site of some TV filming for the recent Forsyte Saga, has a door debouching onto the pier itself. Beneath this the building has its footings in (rather absurdly real) rock.

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I walked down the long pier in the sun, past Dan the Man’s C&W CD stall (playing Dave Sheriff’s ‘Red Hot Salsa’), past concessions selling photographs and souvenirs, past the bar and cafe.

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Bunting flapped above me – I felt a sort of macho pride in having ‘won’ the challenge of my day off. I had found sunshine and been to a place of inarguable funtime, chalking up a result. Then I reached the end and, as always, turned back towards the town.

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In the distance I could see the Happy Valley gardens, with their neat-looking stone circle installed in 1963 as part of an eistedford.

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But, leaving the pier on the other side of the Grand Hotel, I found a more interesting little wonderland – a wildly overgrown garden, nestled below the pier on its hidden land side…

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…on its way to becoming a climax forest of buddleia, lush and ignored by the Owner and not featured in anyone’s daydream right now.

New Brighton Pier in Second Life

There are thousands of eyes on top of a stick, there are thousands of eyes in the moment before the body…
Dogen: The Insentient Preaching Dharma

Piers were once a technological marvel, Victorian enterprise and innovation made visible with all of its forward momentum. At the end of the twentieth century, the Internet had a similar marvellous status. Piers let us walk on waves, the web took us into ‘cyberspace’. Both piers and Internet still exist and it seems appropriate that there is a pier in Second Life: New Brighton to be exact. (This is not to be confused with the former pier in New Brighton on the Wirral, dismantled in 1978.)

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Before it became a utility and work-harness the Internet seemed exciting – we were ‘writing on the world with light’ and soaring through information architecture. It was as if we would soon live without bodies. But here we are, staring into screens that somebody made from physical materials, looking at arrangements of pixels shaped by signals sent through cables under the sea, as embodied as ever. Meanwhile barnacles clog the stanchions.

I pressed plastic keys and electric things happened to conjure the Second Life images, hard to see sometimes in the afternoon sun.

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My father’s not bad really
He got me these wires and bits
Apart from that he talks to me hardly
I’m just into CB
This is Happy Harry Plank
from the land of waving palms
calling out to Cedar Plank
477 CC Res O Code 13

– The Fall, ‘I’m Into CB!’

I never quite got Second Life – probably because I haven’t spent the time necessary to become fluent in moving the avatar around. ‘I’ walk into walls like a seaside drunk, like one of the ‘Chowbent cheap-tripper[s]‘ who were the scourge of the real New Brighton at the start of the 20th Century (according to Harold Young in A Perambulation of the Hundred of Wirral.)

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New Brighton Pier has an authentic pier-like feel and features, though it was curiously unpopulated when I visited. There is even a troupe of resident performers, New Brighton Belles – I’ll try and get back for a show. We may not live in a seamless cyber-world, but it is still pretty amazing that people have created this artefact for others to experience. All these thousands of glowing screens; all these temporary lights…

Dad drove us the long way home, along the seafront so that we could see the illuminations, thousands of bulbs making hanging lines and cascades in a gigantic night, then home.
– Jack Bishop, unpublished diary

As on any pier visit, I walked to the end. The water surrounding it all made a convincing distance, mathematics generating thousands of waves glinting in eternal movement. The sea, the sea…

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