"The increasing powers of steam will, I think, one day waft friends together in the course of a few hours"
(Sir Walter Scott)
"He's got the whole world in his hands..." When I was younger, an hour or two of my schooling was spent sitting in a small, yet memorably warm mobile home, singing an anthology of spiritual anthems. One such hymn was "He's got the whole world in his hands..." which was never one of my particular favourites given that the melody is repetitious. Nevertheless, the message it imparts is explicit: we are sitting in His hands, the palms of God.
It is only until one is comfortably inside their third decade of life that one realizes that God may not be the only one with the world in his hands. I was thinking about this, as I journeyed to Edinburgh this week to see one of my co-supervisors. Sitting at the nose of a ten carriage train, the driver may not witness nor join the hubbub of activity that he dutifully pulls along the tracks, but he must be in no doubt that the lives of every passenger are in his hands to some extent. He can apply the breaks and immediately delay hundreds of appointments. And, indeed, he does have the world in his hands, or at least, ambassadors from all over the globe. If you take the train between Lancaster and Edinburgh, it does not matter which carriage you select, for in each vessel the spices of international culture gurgle and simmer with eddying frivolity.
To my left, with their back to Scotland, was a modest Japanese family. Scaling innocently up their mother's thighs and clambering upon the carriage tables were the family's youngest members. If one is acquainted with the tribulations of journeying with infants who have yet to discover their own volume controls, you will understand my silent yet desperate plea for them to subdue their excitement, and likewise you will no doubt be unsurprised to hear that such a petition was unelected. With every passing mile towards the seam, where the last patch of the English quilt is stitched to the tartan of the Scottish highlands, the infants heightened in their elation. Opposite them, occupying the other half of the table, were representatives from India. The five thousand miles that distanciate Japan and India had become compressed into a small void that hovered above their shared carriage table. One of the Indian infants was counting the sheep from his seat beside the window, and was becoming increasingly stimulated as if the sight of each sheep was a coin in his own energy generator. He has many years to go before such an activity has the reverse effect.
By the time we were edging around the castle at Edinburgh, the carriage hysterics had peaked to maddening levels. Though I have reservations about the word 'friends', Sir Walter Scott had been right with his forecast. The increasing powers of steam had wafted friends together in the course of a few hours. The train stopped, its many jaws opened wide, and the cosmopolitan aroma of internationalism wafted out to become diluted once more.
I have written elsewhere (Week 18) about the alleyway that scales the brow of Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Edinburgh Railway Station is as Scottish as London Victoria. Some railway stations across the country have been constructed with a conscious effort to preserve some essence of locality. Alas, Edinburgh Waverley does not make the list. But what is lost in this architectural sin, elevates the importance of the 'alleyway' for the steps up to the Royal Mile bridge three centuries. Three hundred years of history are traversed in ignorance everyday. As I began climbing this ladder back to the 1700s, I stopped at a pub that had been the Halfway House during my previous visit. But the wonderful sign which creaked in the whispers of a highland breeze was not to be seen. Had this, too, lost its footing on the tightrope of history to fall down to the present day? I wandered in to a lonely bar. Behind it, a Scottish woman.
"Excuse me," I said. "I wonder if you could tell me the name of this pub?"
I didn't want to ask what had happened to the Halfway House, perchance that the landlady thought me displeased with whatever it currently was.
"It's the Halfway House," she insisted.
She noticed me starting to gesture to a little patch of the brick wall, beyond which used to hang the sign.
"Oh...we've had a re-paint. The sign should go back up tomorrow. It will be the Halfway House again, tomorrow."
I wandered back out, and sighed relief. I was still one and a half centuries away from the Edinburgh Royal Mile, so I continued up the alleyway.
I will never tire of Edinburgh. For as long as I breathe in the air which circulates around the body of this ancient place, I will be re-energized by its heritage and revitalized by its culture. For most of us, our hearts beat with a dull thump. For those who saddle the mountains and search out the wilderness of Scotland, their hearts appear not to thump, but to dispatch an impassioned melody which is carried to towns and cities across the country. This sorrowful cry from the Highlands floats over the Firth of Forth and is received by a uniformed guard who stands daily at the edge of the Royal Mile. The cry is translated in his exhalation; it travels through the Bagpipes and rides out into the Scottish air to make poignant contact with the souls that promenade the street.
My meeting in Edinburgh was my second visit to the office of Professor Simon Mudd. I had come equipped with many questions, mostly about the fieldwork. I appraised him of the developments that had occurred since January: that I had six field sites, that I had been to each site for preliminary inspections, that I had discounted two of the sites, that I had applied to the Cosmogenic facility for funding, that I had prepared a thorough fieldwork campaign programme, that I had been to see a statistician. One of Simon's interests is that of geospatial mapping which is apposite, given that I will need topographic maps for my research. The Environmental Agency, over the last couple of decades, have flown over certain areas of the country in a small aeroplane, sending down lasers to calculate with remarkable precision the distance between themselves and the ground below. This technique, known as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is used to draw three-dimensional maps that indicate the slope, curvature and rugged nature of the terrain we like to imagine as flat on our street atlases. Here's an example, showing a Digital Surface Model for Comer Woodland, one of my fieldsites in Shropshire.
There is a problem. The Digital Surface Model includes everything that, naturally, appears on the surface: trees, hedgerows, buildings and so on. Thus, the Environmental Agency have also produced Digital Terrain Models which, put simply, have wiped the surface clean as one might dust a sideboard. However, next in the problem queue is the fact that the plane hasn't swept across every square inch of the country; some of my fieldsites sit, rather annoyingly, a mile or two beyond the flightpaths.
Luckily, there is always a solution. I will travel down to the British Geological Survey again next week and spend some time producing some Digital Terrain Models for each of my four fieldsites. Whilst the Environmental Agency may not have sufficient data, the NEXTmap has a similar facility.
How can you get an entire university campus thinking and talking about the same thing? The answer can be discovered by going down to one of the local power stations, finding the control room, and switching the electricity off for a few hours. Ill-fated weather tried this out on Wednesday.
At night, an outage of power is almost immediately clear but the disgruntled cursing and overall frustration is often self-contained inside individual households. Candles are sought from the dusty alcoves of the 19th century; bedtimes are pushed forward as humans succumb to the hopeless reality. But during the day, a redundant computer or an unconscious microwave are more than nuisances. They paralyze most of the liberties of our everyday lives, as if the very human experience itself is wired to the mains. It is during such a (fortunately) rare, yet seismic event, that a very different way of life is exhibited; as if a lifestyle without electricity that has been dormant for so many years has been plucked from hibernation and offered a one-day pass of freedom. Awake from the passages of pre-electric history, a lifestyle prepares to inflict a sobering message upon us all: we should not take electricity for granted.
Leaving the eel aside, we are the only species to exploit the wonders of electricity. The magpies that skate over Lancaster University most mornings must have perched upon the canopies of the campus trees, puzzled as to why scholars were suddenly emerging en masse from their buildings. Why were they crowding in small groups, appearing helpless? The anthropologist, who studies the human condition, must smile - as I did - when the power was snipped. I grabbed my notebook and headed towards the campus. My first stop was the Lancaster Environment Centre, but when I arrived, it was bordering on deserted. Lobbies, that usually hosted student luncheons, were barren and as I ploughed my way through the dim corridors, I realized that most of the centre was already being locked up for the day.
"How cool are these?" one of my colleagues said, pointing in amazement to a ceiling of epiphytes that decorate one of the avenues between buildings.
"It takes a power cut to notice nature?" I said, half-amazed for the other, more cynical half, realized that many often parade this avenue peering down at little glass screens rather than up towards the foliage.
I continued my walk. Passing the library, I noticed keen scholars squinting at their texts using the residual light that was dripping in through the windows. In the main square, the banks and shops were closed. A cashier in W. H. Smiths revealed her agonies against technology.
"Back to the pen and paper," I reckoned to her, pointing at her vast array of notebooks and pads. The campus pharmacy was also closed. Why was cash, which by its very nature is pre-electric, also redundant? Could the items sold not be written down and entered into the till at later time? The campus bakery was open. Queues of dispirited students were cleaning the shelves of its stock, rustling into their pockets in the hope that out would rattle a few pound coins. Outside, a student who, like myself, seemed to distance herself from the pandemonium, was observing the action alongside me. She told me that humans were going crazy. I pointed out that some aspects of life were disaffected, pointing to a man delivering a trolley's worth of parcels to one of the departments.
I remembered a sequence from the second act of one of Sondheim's plays, where an unveiling of a sculpture that almost entirely relies upon electricity, is grounded due to a fault.
"For precise synchronization of all of the visual elements, I have installed a new state of the art Japanese micro-computer which controls the voltage regulator. I think the surge from the musical equipment has created an electrical short and unfortunately, no electricity, no art."
No electricity, no art. Is this the case? I ambled over to the art department. By the entrance of the music department, I happened upon two musicians hauling equipment down the stairs.
"Surely, music doesn't stop does it?" I asked, toned with the dismay of realizing the answer already.
They told me that music, indeed, does stop. I fluttered the idea of an acoustic guitar, but it was fought with the argument that they needed an amplifier. We started to make a slow exit; they were apparently heading to the city where a small pocket of electricity was fighting (and winning) against the cut.
"The show must go on!" I said.
"We've quite a lot of work to do. We have a concert on Sunday, a prom on Friday, something else Saturday..."
Another performer hastened to add. "The power cut is not our friend, right now."
I made several other visits to vacant buildings which would, on any other day, be happily populated with scholarly life. Emerging from one of the accommodation blocks, a student - whose choice of clothing would suggest a rather recent departure from the mattress - approached me and asked what was going on. I informed him that there had been a county-wide power cut.
"Oh I see," he said, with hint that he didn't. "Are we supposed to evacuate?"
I replied with a negative and then learnt that he hadn't just awoke, but had been working on his computer for his dissertation. We both meditated upon the timeless agony of an unsaved, and now lost, document.
"I'm an English lit student; I am used to reading from books but I don't have any that I haven't already read...[a slight pause]...well, that I like. I've got plenty that I've bought, read three pages of, and put aside".
I suggested that certain subjects lend themselves to power cuts and that those embarked upon Computer Science were particularly redundant.
"They could write their code on a piece of paper?" he suggested.
I decided to swing around and make one final visit. If there is anything left in the world that can thrive without a voltage, surely it is faith. Surely, the act of worship and the outward expression of belief, are and will never be engineered into the circuit board of modernity. Surely they exist in an altogether more sublime prism? I walked to the chapel. As I entered into this holy place, a small female choir were cradling the air with their glorious verse. The flame from a candle sent a shimmer of light across the hallway. On one of the walls, a message read: "Light will always break through the toughest of dark shields".
I ambled back out, and whispered that again. "Light will always break through the toughest of dark shields".
Pull out from your bookcase your thesaurus. Marooned between "commodity" and "commotion" is the word "common", and the scholars at Collins have dutifully provided four situations where the word 'common' may be most appropriately employed.
1. Ordinary, usual, commonplace, simple, run-of-the-mill, bog-standard, workaday[...]
2. Popular: standard, widespread, prevailing [...]
3. Vulgar: inferior, low, coarse [...]
4. Community: public, community, communal [...]
If you are inwardly debating the mastery of Collins, come with me to Blackpool, for Blackpool is a synonym of the word 'Common'.
Where does Blackpool begin? The great arms of British terrain stretch west towards Ireland, and there is a sensation, I imagine, to believe that Blackpool occupies the tips of its fingers; the very interface between land and sea. Perhaps, when one thinks more about Blackpool, the expanse of the Blackpool sands which are revealed at every low tide, come to mind; the palm of the English coastline. And from this palm, four fingers are outstretched: three fingers pointing west, one for each pier, and one bloodied finger pointing towards the clouds, the prominent Blackpool Tower. But the phalanges of north-west England, that drill into the Irish Sea, do not mark the start of Blackpool, as those who visit by train are only too aware. Blackpool begins further up the arm, at the wrists, and it is there where we will start our journey.
The main artery towards the palm of the Blackpool sands is a high street that, collectively, arouses the first of our four synonyms: ordinary. I quickly abandoned my search for the peculiar, for such cultural eccentricities do not linger here. Were it not for the signage that emblazons walls and doors with the words 'Blackpool this' and 'Blackpool that', one could mistake this street for any in the United Kingdom!
I was thinking about the pulleys that drag millions to these 'run-of-the-mill' streets when I happened upon a bar called 'Ma Kellys', which I originally misread as 'Mr Kellys'. At the entrance, a battle was erupting. The outside insisted it was 1:30pm, the inside argued it was 11:30pm. I slipped passed this battle between day and night, and ventured into the bar. From inside, it seemed absurd that it was daytime. Hundreds of evening dresses, wrapped securely (and some less securely) around the waists of middle-aged women, were being chaperoned around the dance-floor. Around small tables in Frankie's Lounge, eggs were beginning to crack open to begin all-night hen parties. On one side of the lounge, a fully occupied tiered seating area afforded a reasonable view of the stage upon which 'Charleigh', in a blue and sparkling dress, was sending her northern dialect assuredly down the microphone. Her final act on this midday cabaret would be a "triple decker". Apparently, this would be like a double decker chocolate bar, but three tracks instead of two, and "you won't put any weight on". I'm bound to say that it hadn't yet worked for her.
Her triple decker began: a salute to Abba. I fled to one of the corners with a Guinness. Dublin, you may be interested to know, translates from the Irish into Blackpool, but the links between the origin of the Guinness stout and the origins of the British seaside holiday resort are sadly no more than etymological. It was, regretfully but perhaps not surprisingly, one of the worst stouts I have ever had the misfortune to drink. I guzzled and gazed. Ma Kelly's brings out the second of our synonyms, for however 'simple', 'ordinary' or 'bog-standard' the place and its occupants appeared, at 13:45 during the daytime it was undoubtedly 'popular'. I spent some time thinking about the wonders of sound. Forty years ago, a Swedish musician woke up and jotted a lyric about money: it was funny in a rich man's world. That idea, which may have fleeted across the mind as quickly as it takes a man to brew his morning coffee, has been scribbled into a pad, typed onto a page, sung in a small Stockholm studio, and has been preserved into eternity as a sound-wave. Those waves have been cast to tape, burnt to disc, zapped into a computer and for three minutes they rippled through the carpet of Ma Kellys to vibrate hundreds of shoes and sandals. Forty years and a thousand miles has transformed an idea into a vibrating sandal.
The triple decker came to a resounding halt. I alighted and carried on down to the sea.
Amusement arcades sit waiting to douse the tourist with delight. Anyone purely passing the time, and not fixated on any one particular game, finds themselves wading through a sonic cocktail. Television theme tunes, movie soundtracks, and incidental music are whisked together, as if one were walking around a series of occupied music studios without soundproofed walls. Clinging to two penny pieces in the slot machines were lollypops, chewing gum and lottery tickets, each equally threatened with the deep and dark cave that would send them with a one-way ticket into the eager paws of a child. I paused by the grab machines. Amassed in chaos were teddies of all denominations, and though they never reach out to grab hold of the metal hook, their imprisonment surely makes them want to.
I sauntered up the pier. Our third synonym became realized. With each step, the vulgarity became ever more apparent. The dispiriting sight of oxidized iron wrapped itself around the pier. Huts declaring fudge and ice-cream were nothing but false-promises clinging to the edge of the wooden boards that suspend you above the waves. At the end, the front hoofs of twenty horses were perpetually kicking the air. Keeping them company was a lady who sat with glum patience inside a small control box, waiting for someone to decide to travel half a mile in a circle.
Further along the seafront, I happened upon the word 'Brilliance'. The letters were part of a neon lighting display, and the neon had clearly popped out for a breath of fresh air. I asked myself how brilliant the street that leads off from it could be, and with the infectious inquisitiveness that commands my movements in these situations, I crossed the road. To my left, a lap-dancing club and 'Knobby's Karaoke Bar'. To my right, Brannigans claimed that it "likes to party". In Blackpool, it seems, no distinction is made between the words 'vulgarity' and 'brilliance'.
"Luk Mum," a voice shrieked from behind several inches of fake tan. "Soph said it's well dead cool in 'ere." I turned around to see a young girl pulling her Mum towards a shop selling 'everything half price or less'. Sitting on a small island in the middle of the high street, I began to watch what I believed was Blackpool's major shopping district. The biodiversity of the human species is healthy here in Blackpool. Pigeon street cleaners dodge the pilgrimage of customers who pinball their way from shop to shop, in the conquest of a bargain.
Around the corner, at the summit of the high street, a relatively ornate church stood as a backdrop for a town show. Erected before it was a stage, from which two speakers were spouting the music most often reserved for the circus. I had arrived just in time to see the George Formby Tribute Act. Up a set of stage steps came the ghost of Mr Formby, clutching a ukulele. Against the harsh winds that were threatening to steal his top hat, he spent half an hour exuding a gaiety across the square that salutes our final synonym of Blackpool: that of community. I have little doubt that the town has entertained the crowds for over half a century and it is perhaps the celebration of the other three themes- a widespread passion for ordinariness, the prevailing acceptance and celebration of its own vulgarity - that makes Blackpool the town it is today. Little mops of grey hair were sitting in rows, and I watched as Mr Formby used the oldest paintbrush known to man - comedy - to paint smiles across their wind-swept faces. Many were fanning the air with little union jack flags. Nearly all were tapping their feet as Mr Formby strummed out some echoes from the bygone age. The clouds had given way to the first rays of sunlight, and like he promised, it had turned out nice again.
Down by the Blackpool Sands, the gulls were puppets being pulled by the wind. With the tide's day trip to the coast now over, I watched it as it made its westerly voyage to the horizon, ready to bathe the sun. Several acres of Blackpool had become available. Donkeys carted children across the sand; their hooves sinking in to small pools which were now only memories of an Irish Sea. I walked across to greet the current shoreline, which was at least 700m away now. The farewell messages from the departing waves were sketched into the sand; the corrugated ripples punctuated often by the commas of shells and the apostrophes of crabs. Beside the legs of the Central Pier, now ankle deep in sand not water, were two figures seeking treasure with metal detectors. I gazed as they ironed the air with their machine, often making exploratory digs with their spade. If the jewel of the coast is here in Blackpool, it may well be deep underground but then Blackpool doesn't protest to be seasoned in treasure, or indeed, peppered with riches at all. It prides itself, I think, in being common: in being ordinary, popular, occasionally vulgar, and forever a community.