Environment, Landscape, Stories

Fiction and the Field

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A boy lies in a field in the sun, wondering how he got there.

The journey itself was unremarkable. He’d wanted to accompany his Dad on one of his quests for ‘buried treasure’ since the day he opened the shed door and a large thin, heavy object crashed behind it.

‘No harm done, son,’ said Dad, plugging in the headphones and twiddling the on dial until a faint but unmistakable whine could be heard through the nearest headphone.

J had dreamed many times of being Indiana Jones. Indiana James! Ha! He imagined being pursued by spear wielding tribesmen and having to use quick-wit and guile to stay alive. He knew it was an arcane, outmoded illusion (although he didn’t use those words, exactly). It was ‘uncool’ because his Dad started him on those 1980’s adventure movies. He also couldn’t help but love everything about them and had a Harrison Ford poster stuck with old blue-tack on the back of his bedroom door. It was a gift from Dad.

The skate park was where he normally hung out with Ed, his buddy and wingman on the hard, grey slopes just behind the local secondary school. J and Ed were in a race to master grinds after they both nailed ollies, kickflips and heelflips. Ed had broken his wrist on his first attempt and had spent the previous couple of weeks sulking on a bench, but at least that’s where Amy hung out. There was always an upside.

Boy

The last time J was face down in the dirt wasn’t on his board. He’d launched himself and his ancient hardtail mountain bike at full speed down Greenacre Hill, over some hastily harvested planks and attempted to glide gracefully over Roo, H and Charlie, clipping Charlie on the way down with his front wheel, swearing and feeling the warm tingle of blood as it leaked from his sweaty brow. The ground was equally as hard then as now. He’d have more of an audience today, if he had his bike and could be bothered to build a ramp, but he wondered whether even a light aircraft overshooting the nearby aerodrome would elicit much of a response from the field of foragers whose senses were entombed by the elemental tone of copper and bronze humming through their heads.

The loose change in J’s jeans pocket jabbed into his groin. He commando crawled along to the next clump of dried wheat stems, wondering why he’d seen so few insects lying as he had been for half a day, with his chin nuzzled into the chaff.

At least it wasn’t pissing down with rain.

A version of this image features in the latest edition of Landscape Photographer of the Year.

Field

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Book reviews, Inspiration, Landscape

Missing Buildings

Hessel Street, E1

Our real times were spent out of school. I spurned authority, all the boys did. We used the derelict bombed houses as our hideaway places. They were the arenas for our obnoxious behaviour. We would buy a pennyworth of chips for our lunch, ram them into a dry roll and take it into a derelict house, climbing right to the top where we would sit and discuss things, as if we were in some kind of parliament.’

Don McCullin, Unreasonable Behaviour

Borough High Street, SE1

An overall sense of loss pervades the work of brother and sister Beth and Thom Atkinson in their new book, Missing Buildings which, as the name suggests, is a typological study of the bombed-out spaces left in London from the second world war.

This impression is reinforced by the lonely streets, the unpeopled pavements and flat, empty skies. It’s as if the air raid sirens never stopped. As if the living have sought shelter below ground alongside the dead and other archaeological remains. An eerie calm pervades throughout.

As metaphors for memory – both collective and individual – and the cumulative effect of time, these traces of buildings act as a cypher to contemplation; not only about the legacy of war, but also the cycles of social and political change that shape a modern city. Much as weather is photography’s unintended subject, so the changing socio-economic landscape of London permeates Missing Buildings, asking us to look again, and question how far we’ve come.

The outlines of these spectral structures are sometimes hard to see. One might assume that the locating process took weeks of walking and looking. The reality, it seems, is less arduous, and opens a subtle element of ambiguity in the project. Thom describes how most sites are marked on official war record maps, but some aren’t. These ‘unknowables’ are nevertheless taken to be bomb sites, both by the photographers and by passing locals, who engage the pair, curious about the project.

The public recounting of war stories adds a sense of certainty to these unverified facts, and intriguingly, Beth and Thom conspire in this story-telling with photographic ‘evidence’ – enhancing and repeating the fiction. In other words, this is not an exhaustive – or reliable – compendium of sites, but a foray into the urban past, a process of awakening and patient revelation using photography as the key to unlocking a deeper, psychological connection with places imbued with myth.

Copeland Road, Peckham

These places are remarkably, disconcertingly familiar. The urban syntax of regeneration, gentrification and disenfranchisement pervade. The side of one building – in graphic coincidence – is rendered ‘transparent’ by talented graffiti artists, showing the private décor of a fictional family, complete with ground floor pub and upstairs cat. An embarassed looking washing machine, surprised by its very public display, peeks apologetically out from a small shed onto a damp carwash courtyard. And a surrealist masterpiece – a giant monochrome rat – eyeballs the lens of Thom and Beth’s camera. Both unblinking.

Hackney Road, E2 #1

This process of walking and looking unifies the project and connects the photographers to their subject as vulnerable pedestrians, at risk from speeding car or vindictive pigeon. We learn – in the insightful afterword by David Chandler – that their grandfather was an ARP warden, based in Balham during the Blitz, whose job it was to ‘map bomb impacts in the area.’ Beth and Thom continue in this tradition – walking, observing and recording – much as their grandfather had done 75 years earlier. They have created a fitting and timely memorial to their grandfather and to the bomb site victims.

Goulton Road, Lower Clapton

In a picture from Goulton Road, Lower Clapton, a large billboard for a business directory proclaims ‘Knowledge is king.’ Next to it the ghostly, pointing, pock-marked apparition of what appears to be Lord Kitchener hovers above a sign which says ‘Cars wanted for cash.’ The memories of war, if we dare to look carefully, are everywhere.

Buy the book here.

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