Of course I know that I'm not going to find the words to describe this town but this is not necessary. Words are for navigation. This is a different kind of mapmaking; the form is unfaithful to the schematic.
Everything that is made is made to decay.
This is the lesson of Rome, it is written in the ashes of Alexandria, it is the terror that stalks the Caliphate of Harun al-Rashid. These are the lessons of darkness. The spells that ward away such things are a temporary measure at best. A handful of cemetery dirt offered to those who think they are bigger than the rest until the dust of it paints the dusk orange. A sunset made of prayers to broken stone.
Empires fade with the glow of a gilded decadence. Sex and drugs, purely as commerce, hang in the air with the debris of a hundred construction sites. What remains is not what is essential to survival but what is essential to the set dressing.
I sleep low to the ground on a site that once was a multi-storey hotel. The gravel is littered with concrete and rebar but there is no trace of the dreams of strangers that one often finds lingering in the pillows of transient rooms.
Four years ago, travelling to another place, I stood near here and watched curtains billowing through broken glass. Was it then that those dreams were escaping? Carried away by the air to become uneasy guests among the dreams of the dead?
The city is sectioned and controlled. A maze of wire fences, shipping containers, CCTV and hi-viz security people. A regime on lock-down. All activity has a component of security. Even discussions around me of community projects require acknowledgement of security although the once palpable edge of real human danger feels removed from the streets.
Is the absence that of the permeable spaces? The gaps where life slips past the limits of control into a subconscious knowledge of the immediate terrain. Perhaps this is the inevitable and natural reaction to an objective demonstration of true and unpredictable chaos.
In someways a response to the presence its ghoulishly aroused spectators, this remains a closed city, suspicious of outsiders. The threat, the xenophobia of the past (that indomitable Englishness) that scars this whole country has become something else. Endurance is now a secret handshake and a badge of honour. Survivors band together. Given time they speak in code.
I am scared.
I'm not scared of being here.
I'm scared I might like it.
Soon they'll figure out how to tear it down quicker than they can throw it up.
There is a fantastic angle to the light as the sun falls across the plains. The architecture is all sharpness : the brutality of concrete and the presence of glass. Mirrors more present than the thing being reflected.
This is not how one expects a city to express itself.
But how does one expect a city to express itself?
These strange conglomerations of people, buildings, organisation, and ever present commerce. Lives written into the material of architecture. This space where the architecture is in a perpetual state of rewriting, and endless draft. Even the new buildings don't last.
The ghost of the city doesn't appear in the vacant spaces, the proliferation of stony parks, but in the fenced of areas of reconstruction. The transparent outline of what once was, a three-dimensional gesture drawing in wire and tubing.
The built environment must be met on its own terms. This ostensibly human-created space is just another monolithic landscape in which we reduce ourselves to spectators. It is not a human order to which cities are arranged but to their own internal logic that exists beyond the comprehension and volition of their inhabitants and even their designers.
All cities are an imposition on the world.
An invasion by the alien other that is us,
Cities must be seen to exist in the order of something Other.
People who are not from here speak of a certain sense of darkness that once pervaded these streets. An air of uncertainty, a potential for violence lurking just beneath the thin crust of artificial Englishness.
People who are not from here say how that darkness has gone from this place. The beta noire buried deep beneath these streets rolled over and ran away. Maybe this is better. Maybe there is enough evil elsewhere in the world to allow us to presuppose the existence of good.
The kraken, not the hydra. The many-headed hydra with its multiple sense organs already implies too much identity and volition. It has too many faces. The beast here has no face, just blind grasping tentacles; the leviathan become something Lovecraftian. Utterly indifferent and unknowable to anything human.
Everything here is a brand but these colourful logos are just another mask that horror wears. The world is destabilised, not even standing on its head but spinning around like a knife thrower's target.
A scattered rash of road cones erupt from the beaten concrete.
The present is an invasion of the past by the future.
There are of course the open and empty lots. The action of bulldozers turned to patches of grass strewn with stones and rubbish. So much, however, is contained and restricted by temporary wire mesh fencing. Temporarily in place for four years.
The heart where the buildings are still all ruined and burnt.
The sign says, 'LIMBO LAND'
Abandoned bottles line the streets, clustered around the signs designating liquor-ban zones. Broken glass and broken brick go hand in hand. The agents of responsibility have more to consider than lighter heads carrying heavy hearts.
Graffiti and sanctioned street art war across the walls here. Broken buildings have been climbed and tagged. New and repaired buildings saturated in the disposable idioms of pop-surrealism. But these are not the things that I wish to write about.
The narrative of love is discarded in a clamour of general refuse. Perhaps this is what it has taken to get rid of hate. To destroy evil we must abolish good. To banish shadows we must put out all of the lights.
Business is booming without a customer base.
Twenty five applicants a week and vacancies are scarce.
The complicity lies somewhere.
I have yet to find a Virgil to guide me through the circular pathways of this labyrinth but my host described it almost immediately: The city is suffering an identity crisis more enduring than the moment of catastrophe.
Into this absence of identity that franchises force themselves. A regimented parade of vacuous non-places with a frightening repetition of form and function. Each in itself a semblance of experience; nation and culture compressed to brand-recognition and flavour palette.
The process of replication is viral.