Saturday, 19 August 2017
Friday, 18 August 2017
I happened to be in Newcastle and so decided to made a tour of Byker, the neighbourhood in east of the city where my grandfather, Sid Burn, was born. That's about the full extent of my knowledge of his connection to the city. He left the North East and followed work which eventually took him over the border to Scotland, where this picture was taken. Once there, he dropped his Geordie accent and acquired a standard issue Stranraer one: he became a Scot. Something I didn't know about him till I studied this photograph was that he smoked. What else might I learn on this tour?
I started with the nearly famous Byker Wall, the large 1970s public housing estate adjoining the metro station. I wanted to see how this family connection might change the way I looked at and made my way around this not so very glamorous suburb.
All the brightly painted railings and shutters hanging off the blocks couldn't dispel the gloomy atmosphere that hung over the place. The area seemed turned in on itself. Most of my other experiences in Newcastle have been that people are very approachable but here it was about as open and welcoming as a teenager locked in their bedroom listening to Joy Division.
Not having a street address where he lived to head to made this a very speculative tour. I remember him as a committed Catholic, however, so this offered a geographic prompt: find the church he attended. This is the local Catholic church complete with a wonky Christ on the cross. This place is old enough that Sid would have known it, it might even have been his local church for all I know. As he was a builder and mason, my attention was drawn to the stone work. While this place probably didn't bear the trace of his hand, I figured that somewhere in Byker there must be some stonework that still does.
Walking around the estate, it became clear that it was not just the architecture that was stuck in the seventies. I stumbled across this piece of fabric with a design that speaks of groovy health food shops and flared trousers. Thinking further about that time, I realised those were the years my grandfather and I shared: my earliest years and his last. That said, you'd never see him wearing flyaway collars or tie-dyed T-shirts, his tastes were set in the forties. It is interesting, all the same, the way an era seeps into your life regardless of your tastes. I suspect if, in thirty years, I am still alive and were to look at photos of me today, I'd see much more of 2017 in me than I am currently aware of.
Walking down Shields Road, the main shopping thoroughfare, I heard this barnstorming track by ELO. I was by now tuned to a seventies wavelength and Don't Bring Me Down did not disappoint. I had to hang around until the end of track to get a full fix of nostalgia.
I wanted to take away some sort of souvenir from the tour, something that could act as a reminder of Byker and this afternoon spent walking around in the footsteps of Sid Burn. Finally, it was this miniature curling stone that I took away with me. I chose it because my grandfather was a stone mason and settled close to the Ailsa Craig, an island famous for producing the top-quality curling stones and which does itself look a little like a giant curling stone rising our of the water.
I also came away with a copy of North East History, which looks like a great read. Focussing upon the labour history of the North East, it chronicles the world he grew up in. Because my family is mixed in terms of where it has come from and where it has moved, I lack a strong connection to any single place. Looking at this closer, however, that is itself a condition of a significant portion of the the working class: they followed the work wherever it was offered. Seen as migrant labourers from North East England and Southern Scotland, a more distinct identity to my family emerges and, while this tour of Byker did not reveal a specific genealogy, it did make clearer this broader affinity. Rather than being from a family with no history, then, I see there is great effort being made to describe and understand how they lived. To describe is to value, and to value is to give greater dignity to their lives. Keep up the good work!
Monday, 31 July 2017
I'll be returning to Hong Kong to lead a nine-day workshop on creating tours in late August early September. This will be a great opportunity to work, with a concentrated group of participants, on making artistic and cultural tours from start to finish. I'll be joined by Yuen She Hung and Indy Lee in giving this course and at the end of it all of the participants will have created a tour of their very own. Hong Kong is already an exciting city but I'm really looking forward to seeing how I can help people tell different stories and show less familiar sides of the city. This can only make for a richer still experience of Hong Kong. The course will be given in English but details of it below are provided in Chinese.
Friday, 28 July 2017
The day before going on this Way-Losing Tour, I visited a friend in Molenbeek, the neighbourhood much in the news as a hotbed for jihad. It seemed perfectly OK to me, but I did hear from a friend living there that until recently it had seen a surge in terrorism tourism. Looking out from on high, I saw more of Brussels than I've seen before: towers, hills, houses and parks stretching out afar. I didn't realise that it would be amongst these very same buildings we'd be passing tomorrow.
The starting point, this statue in Grassmarkt, the time, 2PM. The city-centre with it's convenient signposts and cultural centres soon slid away. We rang the bell of the The Magic Mountain but nobody was in. We walked on.
We cut a line northwards, a direction we were mostly unfamiliar with, and we seemed to fall on the right-hand side of the main train tracks. Whilst I don't really know the city, I know this train line only too well so it was important to move away from it. This meant steering a path around and away from the red light zone that seems to ooze along the side of the tracks of the north station.
I had never previously realised just how hilly the city is. This can be both an asset when getting lost and also land you with bad surprises: you can happen upon a view that immediately locates you. These hills were at first a blessing and then later became something to avoid. Over time we gravitated to the valleys. To get lost, we had ourselves to become hidden.
Of all the Way-Losing tours so far, this was perhaps the most elegant. Where previously Way-Losers have often found ourselves drawn to the margins of the city, sites beyond the reach of designers and even the law, in Brussels we seemed to be accompanied by a steady stream of art deco buildings.
We all knew far more than we realised. We kept on stumbling across places we didn't know we knew, landmarks that prevented us from fully leaving behind the city and coming face to face with something other.
For no more than fifteen minutes did we reach our precarious goal of being lost. That is when the discussion warmed up. We saw the police interviewing residents at the door, the stories of crime surfaced once again, but so too very particular details. Businesses that had fallen on hard times, unusual names, ambiguous signs pointing in all directions. Yet, even when lost there was a presence surrounding us that could not be wholly forgotten. Planes making their approach to the airport and hills upon which tall buildings threatened to reveal us at every corner.
Finally it was the train line that brought us back to reality but it did so in a curious way: it led us to Magic Land. Once again we stumbled into theatre, once again the city was offering up a polished version of itself that was not quite real, but not for one instant did we break into the backstage of Brussels and discover the dressing rooms where the city's make up is painted upon it transforming street to stage. An elusive city, then, a city that has faces for all occasions, a city with a resisting embrace.
Saturday, 8 July 2017
Here we are at the start of our Way-Losing tour of Jimei District, Xiamen. Previously, I have always been cast in the role of the visiting tour guide who tries to get the locals lost. This time round there were some other visitors too, and none of us could precisely say we were local to Southern China, though a couple of us knew their way around Jimei.
The tour was distinguished by torrential rain that fell in sheets shortly after we began. We jumped into the first bus we saw, then another, and this finally led us far from the centre to an area none of us had been to before. The rain abated long enough for us to go looking for a local 'Tire Museum' but drizzle started again and we took shelter around a table dominated by a Teletubbie. I was reminded of performance artist, Gary Stevens, who lent his voice to these creatures, as we sat drinking inexpensive beer in this makeshift bar. Seeing as some of the group had been looking for a bar all along, it worked out just fine.
One of the attractions of a Way-Losing Tour is that there is not too much pressure on having to be led to anything special. On the majority of more conventional tours, you expect to be lead to supposedly important sites and, more often than not, the locations are ever so slightly disappointing. They are rarely the guide's own personal choices, they simply comprise the city's canonical geography and the guide is there to explain it for you. With a Way-Losing Tour, however, places come and go like weather and it is up to you and your fellow way-losers to find significance in them. This puts the tourist in a more active position.
When looking at sites like this and creating your own narratives from them, you have to look a lot more closely than usual. With so many sites and threads in the air I started trying to make connections between them all. Imposing sense on experience is hard, but inevitable; looking for that sense in unfamiliar places was where the creative work lay for me.
The Blue Mountains, some way off in the distance, was where my imagination kept drifting off to. They exerted a pervasive influence that transcended the muck, mire and petty affairs of the increasingly scrappy streets below.
Earlier on in the afternoon we had been talking about the shared bike schemes and then we saw an Ofo bike far from the city, cutting its way through one of the many small lakes that the village had been engulfed in. Looking closely at the the village aesthetic I came to see how it was different to the city's but also how, in places, the village popped up in the city too. This got me thinking that to understand how the city works, and why it looks the way it does, it is essential to also understand the outlying villages like these, too.
A field that marked the furthest point we would reach, and where Xiamen truly ended, provided the set for this domestic scene. There was a fair amount of creative work quietly going on in the background and this got me thinking that this could all be foregrounded in a creative Way-Losing Tour. This was a mixed group, however, with people here for different reaso so this was not going to be that sort of tour.
Afterwards we ate food in the adjoining town. We got lucky and it turned out to be pretty good.
It was not over. A bus took us back onto the island and into the city. Weaving our way back I realised that there must be many more buses like the one we took, connecting the villages to the city, something I had underestimated before. Spat out in Sibei, we stumbled into a rare demonstration: Xiamen University professors complaining about housing resale rights. Unable to get a bus or taxi back because they were clogging the road, I realised that on a Way-Losing Tour, problems do not have to be perceived as problems: they are opportunities to discover more about the place and people. This resistance, or will of the city, is one of the things that is expected, even necessary. The frame of the Way-Losing Tour transforms problems, well it has so far, and demands an interesting balance of being engaged but also accepting of just what fate has in store.