“I start digging in this medium, trawling and sifting through the past, without knowing really what to look for” – The Undercurrents
Leeds is a minor European city. It has a history, but that history is only vaguely, partially and sometimes present for me in my daily life here. We have a historical society but no popular or literary histories (or should I say, popular literary histories?) except one – the Hounding of David Oluwale. Its past is minor, imperial, and parallel to other cities whose examples might take its place in general histories of the twentieth century.
Berlin is different. It has been a capital, lost that title, and regained it, been near destroyed and separated, by concrete violence, into two smaller cities, and then re-joined. Like a churned riverbed, it shows several traumatic layers flowing together – its surface scarred. This is the surface through which Kirsty Bell moves. She buys an apartment on the canal, and spends her days of abandonment looking out of the window and seeing the past animate and haunt the view. Her book is a haunted book, about a haunted house. A house that is trying to speak to her through water.
It starts with a pool of water – “these tears of mourning were the building’s own” – a broken pipe and flooded room that precipitate her divorce. All of the disrupted rhythms of life coalesce into a historical project. Bell puts herself under this structure of the past, with its tangents, and she walks out, rides out into Berlin to excavate. She takes upon herself this difficult and fruitful task, of giving a city the form of a book, a Joycean, Augustinian, Platonic, key to the city.
And like the sea, the reservoir and the river Liffey curl around Dublin and Ulysses, girdling the narrative and cradling it, Bell takes that water outside her window – the web of pipes, canals, and sewers which under-gird and outline a city – as her guiding metaphor-line which expands and recedes from view in waves, as her house and its past residents come into contact. She uses history as a technique to shift herself from an oppressive domestic inertia – or is shifted by history.
As I was reading, I imagined a diagram like the nervous system as portrayed in a textbook – but instead of branching nerves I saw buildings and their pipes, pipes in the tower blocks like standing, pumping, webs and paths, open to the air – and all this full of psychic energy. From the mid nineteenth century through to the present, Bell traces that path, of plans and upheavals, tracing the lives of women who lived in her apartment complex, and literary figures that have been lost in the stream.
“Who were the female authors anyway to finesse such imagined emancipations?” – The Undercurrents
Insofar as I found the book difficult it was in my lack of antecedent attraction to Berlin, given that I knew so little – although I have now been initiated into some of those mysteries – and in that disconnect that came from my position as tenant, and her position, by the end, as landlord. That is, the class divide between me and her. But the book repays so much – the undercurrents is a book full of undercurrents. It plunges its hand into the whirlpool of history and brings out sodden masses of enigmatic souvenirs, the souvenirs of a city. It is so sprawling and full that upon flicking back through I see so much that I just couldn’t take in, as Berlin impacts me all in one go. There is no secondary world here, in fact the real Berlin impacted Bell, and through her book it hits me, like the next ball along in a Newton’s Cradle.
As Rosa Luxembourg appears in her story, lost in world-changing, petty violence, I think of events in my city, quieter events, but related, nonetheless.
“How to remember in a city, a city with a past like this?” – The Undercurrents
The Aire, was, in imperial times, a river that, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, you couldn’t sail a boat along without a gang of workers out in front of it with shovels. But in the early seventies, a man died in that river – or rather, his body was found downstream at the water treatment works as Knostrop. As with Rosa, they weren’t, at first, sure who it was. But it became clear – David Oluwale was a British-Nigerian who, brought up on stories of the greatness and welcome of the motherland, made the mistake of actually trying to visit*. He was unable to find consistent work in a society so marked by its own imperial racist ideology and, having been assaulted by the police and coincidentally, possibly, simultaneously damaged mentally, he became alternatively institutionalised, incarcerated or homeless. He was hounded, that is, physically assaulted and bullied for years by two policemen, the records of whose whereabouts at the implied time of death was found to be false, and he ended up dead in a river. The police went away for his assault.
In Bell’s book, the political murders of the thirties in Germany are explored, where an atmosphere of cleanly or hygienic conspiratorial authoritarianism wanted the body politic rid of its viruses – and in the words of those officers on trial in 70s Leeds, they were only trying to clean up the city, to leave the centre sterile. Of course, if the accounts are to be believed, that justification is only the cover for a resentful, and racist, excess of violence, or at least the face it naturally assumes when talking in public. What did they say to Oluwale when they beat him? What did the fascist idiots say to the incomparable Rosa whilst they muscled her around in the car on the way to her death? Stupidity has only the recourse to violence, and when it loses, violence against the self or abuse against dependents – the violence turns inwards.
Reading about the struggles against and under Berlin’s fascist sterilisation, of train cars packed with humans considered by the administrator as, and only as, cargo or refuse, of course, it is naïve to wish for history to impact your city in the way that it has Berlin – in the sense of swelling, twisting, flattening – exaggerated tendencies that speed up or fragment the city as lived in. Of course, some of the blame for Berlin’s massive destruction rests with the heads of Allied bomber command, who never gave up the habit of area bombing, even when it became clear in their own audits, and their own minds, that the aim it was designed for (mass civilian death) did not bring the desired results (any effect on the ‘war effort’). My city does not have a Rosa, a Walter Benjamin, a Christopher Isherwood – though it has its minor figures awaiting their chroniclers. It doesn’t have a revolution. But in turn, it doesn’t have the scars, the ruins, and the wounds of an invasion or war.
Leeds underwent a soft splitting in the 70s, which although it cannot stand comparison to Berlin, still left such a wound as to be still visible in those resident at the time, as masses of terraces were destroyed around little London, and a motorway was driven right up to the centre of the town. And now, to me the central university plateau with its combined Labour and Victorian/Utopian architectures seems to me not far off a real heterodox utopia. Certainly in the sun, and populated by students, it feels bright and alive.
And deeper into the Victorian past, having first been split by canals and linked in to the Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds nexus, the city was knitted together over the river in a massive imperial engineering project, such that the river Aire now runs directly underneath the station, in the process connecting to the Leeds-Liverpool canal, through what are called the ‘Dark Arches’, redolent of a Roman imperial sewer, passing underneath us in a symbol or model of the way the British Imperial past runs through our lives, dark, damp, out of sight and yet constantly flowing through and affecting us. My mum would take me down there when it was a market, and I can still clearly bring up the cold breeze with its smell of ancient mortar, looking out into the darkness from where the water came. In my young head it surged from some underground source to another, disconnected in the way that young experience of place is. Now the Dark Arches are lit, the market is a car park and occupied by the back entrance to the station, essentially an extravagant entrance for bourgeois commuters and useless to most pedestrians due to the lack of a foot thoroughfare. The bright Unison union headquarters on the canal and the socialist stickers under the railway, next to slurs on the wall, link us in to that past, marker of that historical materialism that Rosa Luxembourg would understand well.
“…the meths drinkers and the bed-wetters whom no hostel would take, slept under the Dark Arches, trains rattling above them, river rushing underneath them, water dripping on them…” – The Hounding of David Oluwale
The police drove David Oluwale to the forest outside the city several times before his death and left him there in a racist performance of ‘taking home’ – and it lead to David talking of the Forest, raising Sherwood Forest as a ghost in the trial, misunderstood by the stenographer as a forest in the city, spectral the trees on the roads of the Headrow. If only an undead Robin Hood could have stepped from that forest too, to act as an ancient guardian. But he didn’t, and Oluwale died.
In the weeks that I was reading The Undercurrents, a memorial in the form of a blue Plaque was placed on Leeds bridge, over the river downstream from the Dark Arches. This was the result of years of work, the work of remembering, on behalf of the David Oluwale Memorial Association. It was immediately torn down and possibly thrown into the river by racist thugs. Across the city, soon, in digital form, the blue plaque was beaming from billboards, and Welcome Skate store was distributing stickers of the plaque to paste up in a non-hierarchical memorialising. I went from biting shame on behalf of my city, to a certain pride, as this anti-racist counter to the violence went on. And it helped me to think about this sense of owning a place – in an anarchist or anarchising state of mind, I think – this is our place, our city. Our authority. But in an anti-nationalist frame of mind I think – but it is not just ours, should be cosmopolitan. The key to collapsing the reactionary, exclusive frame is: you’re welcome here – add yourself and multiply the culture. But only as long as you aren’t authoritarian, racist. Your place is automatic, but you have no authority over others that isn’t granted knowingly.
When a prisoner moves into a jail, if you forgive the carceral metaphor, they are liable sometimes to inherit the debts of the cell’s previous inhabitant. Insofar as our home has a history of violence, like a prisoner we must inherit the debts and crimes of its past – and the struggle against them. We must repay them. Like a prisoner we may complain that it is unjust. But if we want to build a more just world, we can’t escape it. If you’re haunted, you need to confront the ghost.
The types of exorcism that Bell tries are various – rearrangement of the apartment along or with the principles of Feng Shui, or tracing of psycho-territorial wounds described by stone tape theory. These techniques of speech production, of thought, can create their own limited values, texts, far beyond being considered for truth-value – it is not the case that these things are true in the scientific sense – but they are projects of self-mythology which are harmless in themselves. And days of abandonment require techniques of coping, no matter if you are abandoned or the abandonee. I can’t resist the rhetorical gesture of disavowal, though real, in describing the channelling, the exorcism occurring at the end of the book, where strangers in a therapeutic community stand in for the positions of the house and its residents. I would arrogantly claim that any revelation that came through this act is due to the forms of the super-posited structures – (history of house:position of channelers) – in their relationship to Bell’s immense knowledge of that history. The revelation, the exorcism, was Bell’s alone – but that’s enough. The exorcism, performed and performative, was an event in Bell’s life, and gave her some peace, dissociating or introducing a disjuncture between the breakdowns of her house and her psychological history.
The book is well described and given precis by this text mentioned in the latter parts of the book, in Berlin’s post-reunification world (the ‘post’ is a concrete supplement – one lesson we learn.) It’s a proposal for the palace of the German Democratic Republic, now defunct and abandoned – which had been built on an older palace, knocked down in the communist years:
“He suggested leaving it there and beginning excavations around it to rediscover the remains of the former Schloß, thus allowing both buildings and both parts of history to be visible in the present.” – The Undercurrents
The experience is, in the Schopenhauerian sense, sublime.
*Which he was well in his rights to do: all imperial citizens were British citizens at that time. At least, in principle. And of course, even legalistically, never mind in terms of real justice, current refugees have their rights under international law.
I requested and received a free review copy of this book from Fitzcarraldo editions. You can get it here.