Antifascist and Anarchist Graffiti in Rome: Text on Text on Text

It has been a good amount over a year since I updated this blog, and while I’ve been meaning to post for a long time about the current state of my research (subsequent posts coming over this one), now feels like as good a time as ever to get back into things.

Since Tuesday, I have been in Rome with my partner, having a small getaway around a three-day Victorian studies conference she is attending and presenting at. I am currently sat on a balcony at the apartment we are renting in the southern part of the Trastavere neighbourhood, which lies in the bend of the Tiber just to the south/south-west of the city centre.

While the centre of the city is obviously and undeniably beautiful–and getting to see the Colosseum and the Forum was something that seven-year old me was really grateful to get to do–my favourite part about travelling is being able to walk around the cities I go to and trying to understand and interact with them unguided (for the most part). So far, this blog has looked at Montreal and Bloomington, Indiana, this way, and Rome was no exception.

While my partner has been attending her conference for the last few days, I took the opportunity to wander around the small area of Rome I currently find myself in. Initially this started as a desire to walk along the Tiber, and so setting out in that direction, I found it quite hard to find a way to get access to the cycle path I saw running along the banks. So, I ended up crossing the river out of Trastavere and walking towards Ostiense. Turning left off the main road and walking towards one of the Roma Tre campuses, I was greeted by this painted on a wall, and which set me on a mission to find as much as a could.


For those that don’t know, this is the international sign for Antifascism: the red flag of communism/socialism overlaying (or sometimes overlaid by, depending on who you are talking to) with the black flag of anarchism. Now, I love graffiti and street art. I also don’t get to write about it at any great length in my research, despite doing work recently with the art of Emory Douglass and Tarika Lewis/Matilaba in The Black Panther newspaper in the chapter I have recently been working on. But, not getting to write about it in the thesis means I get to write about it here, so here it goes.

The way I relate to graffiti necessarily intersects with the way I relate to cities and the things that comprise ‘the city’. The approach I take in my research–as I know many others do as well–is to see the city in a series of layers, that can be viewed top to bottom, or vice versa. For example, in Rome, we have Roma–the city. The city, of course, is comprised of multiple inter-related features: the people and the local government (seen in Rome’s continuing use of the designation S.P.Q.R–the Senate and People of Rome); the city is the physical space is occupies; the city is its historical and contemporary positioning; the city is a social idea, as well as a physical space. However, in this instance, the concept of the city that is important here is that the city is a palimpsestual text: layers of writing, with each layer representing a different feature of the city. In my research, one of the most significant layers of the city–and something I suggest is a form of writing–is the city’s physical infrastructure: its roads, its buildings, its subterranean train lines and sewers, its parks and (semi/pseudo) public spaces, its bridges and walls. This infrastructure is, I suggest, text on text. It is the building on the ground that is the city.

One of the major questions I am pursuing in my PhD research is how do different, often marginalised, groups interact with a city space often physically designed and ideologically encoded to ensure/promote their continued marginalisation, even to enact their repression/oppression through the spaces in which they live, (dont’) work, and travel? In pursuit of this, I look into discussions of infrastructure by these groups, alongside looking at the physicality of the city as an object, and try to understand how this physicality broadcasts a repressive/oppressive ideological context, and most crucially, how these groups/marginalised individuals are able to interact with the physicality (and its consequent ideology) in a liberationary fashion, despite being ostracised from the ability to change the city’s physical make-up through planning and construction.

We are constantly, then, reading the city, whether we realise it or not. Level of personal and social privilege dictate how aware/conscious we are of the messages being projected to us, and so for me–a bisexual, but straight-presenting, white man–it becomes a case of walking with my eyes up, to endevaour to see through my own sense of spatial privilege and spatial security to see the threats and coding that would normally not be seen by me. The direction my research takes is to look into instances in which individuals and groups endeavour to rewrite the city through both physical action and through more traditional textual means. Consequently, I look at instances of subvertising, street theatre, protest marches, occupations and, in the thesis directly, sex in public, underground publishing, and–in the most recent case with the Black Panther Party–anti-police patrols and survival programs. In the context of this blog post and my wandering around Rome, we have graffiti.

I saw the above picture of the antifascist flag while I was walking to meet my partner to go and visit the Cimitero Acattolico in Ostiense, where she was very keen to go and see the graves of Keats, Shelley, and Mary Oliphant’s husband and daughter. I, however, was more keen to see the grave of Antonio Gramsci, who is a bit of a personal hero of mine, as well as someone whose writings have greatly influenced my own politics and my research. As a result, I have been keeping my eyes open for more antifascist and anarchist graffiti, and saw all the below on the same day. [Text continues after photos]

So, while it is nice as someone who shares these politics and praxis to see these slogans painted on the walls of the city’s infrastructure, what reading(s) can we take from them? My approach suggests that this graffiti and street art functions as a means by which a (financially and politically) disenfranchised group of people can change the way in which people interact with the city. These acts and the slogans that comprise them are inherently disruptive. Whether on a conscious or sub-conscious level, these literal texts endeavour to disrupt the semiotic systems that comprise the city as text.

Rather than allowing the city–through its infrastructure, the presence of state actors (in Rome’s case, a surprisingly large presence of armed soldiers and police throughout the city), and corporate/state advertising/propaganda–to broadcast its ideological oppression/repression, these instances of street art simultaneously disrupt the extant coded narrative broadcast through the physical text of the city while also providing an alternative conception of the city through this new text. Stripped of the ability to effect the city at a macro-level–through planning and/or finance–those who write on the city engage with it as a palimpsestual text. The oppressive/repressive infrastructure is difficult, if not impossible, to demolish, but it can be overwritten. And despite this overwriting allowing for traces of the underlying to come through, this new writing is afforded an additional degree of power as a result: it is directly disruptive, directly confrontational with the text it is written on, and provides a new and distinct way to interact with the city. With ‘ACAB’ and ‘Libre’–‘All Cops are Bastards’ and ‘Free’–written all over the walls (read: pages) of an oppressive physical infrastructure, the reader can choose to interact with this space differently, even if only internally, even only for a few moments. These pieces of graffiti are street art are not just declarations of personal political positioning, but gestures of solidarity that–intended to or not–provide a new means of reading, and therefore engaging with–the city as text, and the city as the city.

However, this blog post has now gone on for longer than I expected, so I will go back to exploring Rome and adding any new findings to the bottom of this blog post. Tomorrow we are moving from Trastavere to San Lorenzo, so a few more days of exploring in a new area await me before flying back to Manchester on Tuesday. Please expect some more blog posts soon, including one about how my research on the Black Panthers intersected with my MA work on the freeway infrastructure of Los Angeles and a book chapter I have forthcoming through Palgrave MacMillan in an edited collection that I am excited to share with you.

From Rome,


UPDATE: New finds travelling from Trastavere to San Lorenzo

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Dispatches from Bloomington

Today marks the end of the second week of my visiting fellowship at Indiana University Bloomington, attached to the Lilly Library. With another two weeks to go, I thought it was about time for a blog post.

In my time here on the (incredibly hot) IU Bloomington campus, I have been finishing up the first full draft of my first chapter–more on that another time no doubt–and also exploring the holdings of the Lilly Library and the Kinsey Institute library. I have been amazingly lucky not just to have this opportunity, but also in the things that I’ve found in support of my upcoming second chapter on various publications from the British and American Underground Press. Back in the last months of my undergrad, I was tipped off by a supervisor about the existence of Ed Sanders’ Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. I quickly became preoccupied with ideas of the underground press and mimeo revolution, and I had planned to fit it in to my MA program somewhere, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.

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Fuck You issue 5, vol. 9

When it came to applying for my PhD, though, a chapter on the Underground Press was the one most clear in my mind. While it hasn’t been the first I’ve written about, I am really looking forward to getting to grips with the huge range of material I have so far been able to collect from the Lilly and Kinsey Institute libraries. Current count is around 600 pictures.

When it comes to luck, it is not just the full collection of Fuck You that I was able to get access to at the Lilly, but also copies of a Gay Liberation Front-associated journal held at the Kinsey: Gay Flames. Unfortunately, the Kinsey Institute, especially the library, was subject to quite serious flooding last year. This means that appointments to access the materials the Kinsey library holds is by appointment only. After sending my request email, I was informed that the majority of the Kinsey’s Gay Flames holdings were water damaged and inaccessible, but that I was welcome to come and do some work with those few issues that weren’t damaged. My luck was confirmed when I found the below in one of the four undamaged issues. Exactly what I was looking for:

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“Third World Gay Manifesto”. Gay Flames issue 12, March 1971

I discovered Gay Flames when reading José Muñoz’s excellent Cruising Utopia, where he referred to this very manifesto. Decided I needed to read it for myself, I was very glad to find it had survived the flooding, and an analysis of it will form the jumping off point for my Underground Press chapter.

For the remaining two weeks I’m here, I will be holed up almost every day in the main campus library, the Herman B. Wells, working with microfilm for the first time. The Wells has an Underground Press Syndicate microfilm collection, which includes (among its over 700 holdings), Women’s libeRATion, which is another key text for my chapter, and the publication it grew out of, RAT: Subterranean News, along with a (seemingly) complete collection of The Black PantherUrban Underground (from New York), Black Circles (an openly anarchist publication), Peace News and International Times from London, and Momma from L.A. I fear I’m going to come back to Manchester with far too much material, but it will at least allow me to be discerning. Once I’m back, I’m planning a trip down to the UCL Little Magazine collection to fill in some gaps with London publications, and then it will be hard at work writing until January when I plan to have a full draft complete.

Well, with that, I will sign off. I hope to get another blog post up just after I’m back with my findings from the UPS collection.

From Bloomington,



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Fellowships, Placements, and Reviews

My first post of the new year finds me with a lot of news to share about my time in Manchester and the increasing definition of my research.

The first piece of news I’m happy to share is that in December I was awarded a one month Fellowship to spend time with the collections in the Lilly Library at Indiana University. In what I hope will be the first of a couple of trips to the U.S. throughout my PhD years, I’m looking forward to delving into the collections not only at the Lilly Library, but also others holdings at IU, including a particularly promising one at the main campus library, which is a number of microfilms of output from the Underground Press Syndicate from the 1960s and 70s. Not only will this be particularly helpful for my own thesis, but hopefully for a research project I am contributing to on Small Magazines, organised by one of my current supervisors and an old supervisor from my undergraduate, in partnership with the UCL Small Press archive  and some partners here in Manchester. I am also really keen to take up the opportunities to get involved with the wider academic community at IU, and look forward to making contact with some potential advisors and postgrad communities soon!

I have also begun a placement (pending ethics approval!) at the John Rylands Library, working with archivist/curator Janette Martin and friend and fellow PhD student Imogen Durant (you can find them both on Twitter by clicking their names) on expanding the library’s Jeff Nuttall archives through an oral history project. In addition to digitising and documenting a whole box of cassette tapes from the current holdings, Imogen and myself will be holding interviews with some of Nuttall’s contemporaries to document their memories and experiences of Jeff, and hopefully find some interesting material in the box of tapes. I’m really keen to get involved in this project, and was honoured to be asked, after having visited the Ryland’s current exhibition of Jeff Nuttall, which I wrote about here

Finally, today is the day of my half-year review (though why it is called such, after only 3 months, I can’t say). Over the last few months I’ve been doing lots of reading and writing in an attempt to pin down the theory that informs my work and to solidify my own contribution to the field. I’m looking forward to getting additional feedback on the current state of my project, and pushing on with the first chapter, which looks like it will be focusing on Queer conceptions of urban space in London and New York in the 60s and 70s, and interrogating questions of forms of violence (physical, ideological, moral, and spatial) and insurrection through/in writing. I’m particularly excited to start on this chapter as I can once again start engaging with the work of the excellent Fiona Anderson (whose work I first discovered during my MA). For anyone interested, there is an event linked to ideas of the urban Queer experience (among other things) being held in Glasgow at the end of February that I’m attending, entitled ‘Between the Sheets: Radical Print Cultures before the Queer Bookshop‘, which is linked to the Cruising the Seventies project, which I have been following keenly.


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Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground

I am now one week into living in Manchester, and settled and ready to commence working on my PhD in the English and American Studies department at the University of Manchester!

A few weeks back I was invited to attend the launch of a new exhibition at The John Ryland Library in Manchester by one of the curators (and my new PhD supervisor) Dr Doug Field. I was happy to accept, and yesterday evening cycled down to the library with great expectation.

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With talks from the curators, and special guest Michael Horovitz, the exhibition was a phenomenal insight into the central position of Jeff Nuttall in the international countercultural movements of the 1960s. Largely filled with correspondence, the range of better and lesser known names within the counterculture was astounding. A personal highlight, though, came from the library’s wider archives, and were two typed and scrawled on poems by Allen Ginsberg, including a galley copy of Kaddish.Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, but it cemented the night’s experience for me.

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Michael Horovitz’s talk remembering the output and influence of Jeff Nuttall.

The exhibition also offered up a way into a primary research interest of mine: small presses and the Mimeo revolution. Jeff Nuttall is linked to the founding of the London based ‘International Times’, a magazine of the counterculture that sits alongside others such as Ed Sanders’ New York-based ‘Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts’ and ‘OZ London’.

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Narratives of ‘the underground’ and self-positioning by writers and editors as part of that underground form the basis for one of my PhD chapters. This chapter will explore the idea that for a self-positioned underground, one must have an idea of a corresponding overground, a system and position, a culture and shared ideals, against which one stands, writes, and acts. Central to my thinking is that it is not only the act of writing that stands as an act of resistance, but the materiality of the publication (including, most significantly, the location in which it is printed) functions as a point of unity, a central point on a map of resistance and rebellion, which others can access, rally around, and act accordingly.

For those interested in small presses and how they were produced (the Mimeograph machine made a lot of this possible), the archives of ‘OZ London’ and ‘OZ Sydney’, as well as those of ‘Fuck You’, have been made available online. The University of Wollongong hold the ‘OZ’ archives (click here) and Columbia University hold the physical archive of ‘Fuck You’, but RealityStudio offer digitised copies (click here). In addition to this, the Little Magazines archive at UCL (click here) has a phenomenal collection of independently publish material, and I will be spending a lot of time there over the course of the next three years. What is most refreshing, though, is to discover The John Ryland’s holdings, so close to where I’m studying, and something I was unaware of before applying to Manchester in earnest.

If the 60s and the counterculture isn’t your thing, though, the Little Magazine and Small Press movement developed out into the Fanzines of the 80s and 90s. In fact, if anyone happens to be in the area (and at some point in this PhD I hope to be), the Fales Library at New York University holds an extensive collection of Riot Grrrl zines and archives, in their ‘Riot Grrrl Collection’ (click here). Unfortunately this practice of small scale self-publishing seems to have greatly diminished as communications technology has increased, but for those interested in these acts of self-determination and cultural resistance, or just interested in the ephemera/print-culture of sub-cultures, small press material is always a good starting point.



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The Right to the City/Bicycle Day!

I appear to be emerging from a particularly long period of hibernation, thinking, planning, and applications. And it seems to have been triggered by an article in The Guardian and the fact that today is Bicycle Day.

First, this article (click here). I find that, by and large, The Guardian write well on cities. From architecture to policy, social trends to histories, they tend to do a decent job. Of particular note is their recent series on The Story of Cities, which is well worth exploring. But this particular article on The Right to the City caught my eye. For the best part of two years, the concept of the right to the city has formed the springboard for my thinking and writing, particularly in my MA work. In particular I have focused on acts of protest and the means of repurposing and (re)appropriating both public and private urban space, with a keen eye on the global events of Occupy and the Arab Spring. Satisfyingly, this is where the article starts:

On a grey and drizzly April morning just steps away from the University of Barcelona, dozens of men and women, holding protest banners and wearing slogan-emblazoned T-shirts, stormed into a branch of CatalunyaCaixa bank, chanting “We will never be defeated!”

Within a matter of minutes, the floor was scattered with paper, the walls plastered in posters and stickers. The room was charged with the anger and joy of protest. Bank employees sat sheepishly in a corner, as the protesters continued to sing and shout; police stood across the street, watching.

The article continues by drawing attention to a variety of protest groups, including London’s own Focus E15, a group of mothers who occupied their social housing, resisting eviction for a presumed ‘regeneration’ scheme.

While this is all very interesting, and it is good to see the idea of the right to the city being applied to small and large scale protest groups, I can’t help but feel that something is missing in the article’s analysis, and in its use of the term ‘the right to the city’. The writer focuses–again, quite correctly–on the idea of cities being more “exclusive” and that these protests are focused on making the city more “inclusive”, leading to the conclusion that the right to the city is achieved with “better involvement of citizens in urban development”. So far, so okay.

But what I feel is missing here is the analysis of the protest movement as a performance in, and of a desired, spatial organisation. One can read the protest of the Focus E15 group as a performance of neighbourhood solidarity in the face of the eradication of communities in favour of luxury flats, and their resultant social and communal isolation (note, if you haven’t seen Ben Wheatley’s High Rise yet, do so immediately). This idea of performance is, I believe, a key element in the production of space. Significantly, the fact that reference to performance/production of space is missing from this article goes along with the wholesale omission of Henri Lefebvre in favour of David Harvey’s interpretation of the right to the city. This in itself isn’t a bad thing. I’ve always used (and shifted the order of) Harvey’s own interpretation of the right to the city as put forward in New Left Review 53, September-October 2008: ‘it is a right to change ourselves by changing our city.’ In light of the performance of protest and the resultant production of space/spatial organisation, I favour the reversal of this statement: the right to change our city by changing ourselves.

The Guardian article seems to skim over possibilities other than entering into extant civil structures in order to enact this change. The focus on local and municipal governments reaching out to communities in order to take suggestions seems weak-willed, almost placatory:

more than 30,000 ideas from citizens have been gathered, and later this year the public will vote on which scheme they want to be taken forward. It’s the biggest participation project ever in Madrid.

The biggest participatory project ever in Madrid will result in a single scheme being taken forward. If this is to be the result of state-sanctioned participation in the right to the city, why not explore other options? Instead of entering into municipal structure, why not maintain a spirit of resistance and an outsider status? After all, thirty thousand suggestions resulting in a single change is hardly exercising the ability to change ourselves by changing a single part of the city’s dominant power structure. Why not, then, change our city by changing ourselves, rather than the other way round. The performance of a desired space–dissonant, unsanctioned improvisations within the sanctioned, tolerated, and orchestrated structure of the city–changes our self by changing the way we interact with extant and potential new structures. In so doing and documenting these changes, we present a new means of interacting with the city; a new artefact to relate to and live in. A transmissible paradigm of urban living, and a right to the city that has been fought for, rather than given.

In a particularly participatory way, one can take examples from Albert Hoffman who, today in 1943, took the first intentional dose of LSD and changed the way he saw Basel. The use of drugs functions as a means of generating and/or sustaining a performance of desired space. The ability to chemically change your perception of and relation to one’s surroundings is in itself a subversion of those structures. It became, and remains, an unsanctioned, even deviant, improvisation within sanctioned space, and just one of many tools in the spatial performance tool box.

Happy Bicycle Day, everyone!

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Montreal and the Rue St Catherine East and West

Last month I had the great pleasure of visiting Montreal for a week (followed by spending a weekend next to a pristine lake in wood cabins for the wedding of two of my closest friends.) I was particularly excited to make the trip, not only because it was the first time I’d ventured out of the U.K for seven years, but also because I had the opportunity to explore the city with a group of friends. I wasn’t disappointed with what I found.


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I want to focus this blog on the area around Rue St Catherine East, with some discussion on the apparent polarity between this largely freed up area, and the corresponding balance of high-rise financial and insurance buildings on Rue St Catherine West. And while I had a lot of fun in other areas of the city (including a fantastic night in a quasi-commune in Little Italy of Rue Dante), this is the area I felt needed documenting.

The photos above represent a movement, from left to right, on the back of a restaurant (left) and then the side and back of a bar and venue (right) that face onto Rue St Catherine East. This site greeted me every morning as I walked into the city from the southern end of Rue de Bullion, where I had the pleasure of staying. These murals–huge and hugely detailed in a way my phone camera cannot do justice to–were what really piqued my curiosity about the city. From the airport, I had taken a bus into the centre of the city and was surrounded on all sides by high-rise buildings that ran parallel to Rue St Catherine to the north. But two minutes of walking (out of the five minutes to get to my apartment) I found these. The separation in style and attitude do not accurately capture the sheer proximity of these two styles of ‘city living’. Rue St Catherine had become a place for me to explore.


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Coming back the following day, I cut through this side street that connected the blocks of flats (beautiful examples of well designed, well maintained, and well funded social housing) at the bottom of Rue de Bullion to Rue St Catherine East, which you can see in the picture on the left. I was keen to experience the proximity of these different attitudes towards what city space can, and should, be, and to see how the march of gentrification–which is steadily moving through Montreal–was being acted out on a day to day basis. Throughout my stay there, and my strolls up and down Rue St Catherine, the following greeted me with a flurry of noise and activity:

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This space, above a now closed music venue (which I didn’t manage to get a photo of) stands opposite the restaurants and bars adorned by those intricate, and quite subversive, murals. It appears to be a retorfitting of a building already there, though could easily be a new build, being perched on top of cultural businesses that have been forced into closure. Opposite a bar called Foufounes (that has quickly become an all time favourite) and located at almost the centre point of the whole stretch of Rue St Catherine, this building site–soon to be office spaces–became the epitome of what I felt about Montreal.

Face this building site, with Foufounes at your back, and turn left and you will be moving along Rue St Catherine East. Between five and ten minutes later, you will be greeted with this: Le Village.

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Le Village is the centre of Montreal’s gay district and was, for me, the centre of what I felt about Montreal. In a province where gay marriage was legalised in 2004, and obviously influenced by an urban (and significantly student) population, Le Village throws together gay male saunas, with innumerable restaurants, cafes, and bars, as well as specialist clothing stores promoting transgender and gender fluid clothing lines. All busy, and all existing under these rows and rows of pink balls suspended over the pedestrianised main street as far as the eye can see.

The structural and social permissiveness of Rue St Catherine East, represented through its planning by its pedestrianised roadway, overspill from shops, restaurants, and bars onto the sidewalks, and general continuation of the street art found on the rest of the road, is counterbalanced by the hugely car-inclined Rue St Catherine West. Where St Catherine East remains mostly to a more human scale of architecture (as much as you can in a city full of apartment blocks), St Catherine West dwarfs human attempts to move around it freely. Starting from the plaza out the Musee de Beaux Arts, heading west, the buildings loom over you, turning Rue St Catherine into little more than a traffic sewer, to borrow from Mike Davis. The scales in play here are baffling, not least because when you stand at the interchange between Rue St Catherine West and Avenue McGill College and look north, you can see the mountain the city is named for, peering round huge insurance and banking buildings. (I took photos here, but they appear to have been corrupted).

This sweeping financialisation, that is spreading east along Rue St Catherine (and the parallel Boulevard Rene-Levesque, my route into the city, until you come in sight of the particularly impressive Maison du Ville) is, I feel, symptomatic of what is happening to Montreal. You can see and feel the gentrification of the city as you move through it. Out in places like Little Italy you forget what is happening closer to the centre. Even on St Catherine East you can forget what is happening only twenty minutes further along the road. To me, the character of this city–its apparent independence, its artistic, inclusive, and creative spirit–is being homogenized and whitewashed into a copy of every other major city in the U.K, U.S.A, and Canada. The cleanup is in full force in Montreal, and that is nothing but a shame. In a conversation with the locals in Little Italy about rent prices, they told me how little they pay for such a huge property in a beautiful and vibrant area. My disbelief gave way to a sadness that soon enough, this area (like those in the centre which, while cheap relative to the Cambridge flat I live in now, and especially friend’s places in London) while continually increase until they are priced out. But that, I think, is a conversation for another time.

My trip in Montreal was fantastic, and it was great both personally and academically to be able to explore a city that shows such polarity in such a small area. But the best part was being able to do this for my friends. Look below to see what’s in the pipeline!



I’ve been invited to speak at the Spectral Landscapes: Explorations of the English Eerie event, being held in Oxford at The Old Fire Station on the 24th of October. You can check out the event’s facebook page here and you can book tickets here. My paper is going to be examining Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England (2013) and exploring ideas of the (re)appropriation of space, which is a subject I have been looking at a lot throughout my MA year.

Also, I am standing for election for the ASLE Eexecutive Committee, in the Graduate Liaison position. More on this when I have news!

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Notes on a short drift in Liverpool – 8/7/15

Today I arrived in Liverpool for the Libidinal Circuits conference, hosted by the Schools of the Arts, University of Liverpool, and the International Association of the Culture of Cities. After the registration and a short drinks reception, there were presentations by a variety of artists, held at the amazing FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), one of which was a short 6-minute film titled ‘The Impossible Derive’.

Of course, after the work I’ve done over the last few months about Cold War counterculture and the derive as a means of reappropriating urban landscapes and narratives of urban interaction, I couldn’t resist going on a little (one hour) drift of my own. Inspired by the wonderful Fiona Anderson–who I’ve been re-reading today–I set out in the direction of the waterfront and took some pictures and videos of what I found.



After taking some photos of the waterfront, I planned to just wander back to my room, but within thirty seconds I found a man slack-lining. Drawn between two sets of railings–between one guard railing sectioning off a drop in the plaza level and the other holding people back from a small access canal–I couldn’t help but take a short film of this appropriation of otherwise intended space.

This guy’s sillhouette, moving erratically against the sun, captured my attention while focusing his activities on the space around him. The waterfront at Liverpool, from the point at George’s Pier to the Albert Docks, has been extensively regenerated and, interspersed with museums (including the Museum of Liverpool) and art galleries (the Tate and the Open Eye Gallery included), is no doubt targeted at tourists and other visitors to the city. Further to this, no doubt, it is intended as a social space for the city. And yet aside from this one man, who was actively subverting the intended purpose of the space, and myself, the waterfront was empty. Empty, despite a beautifully warm, dry, and sunny evening (if not a little windy). This put me in mind of William H. Whyte’s excellent Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (click here to see a copy hosted online) and what it takes to make a good urban plaza (or open space, as the waterfront is better described). Discussing the need for places to eat, places to sit, and places to socialise, Whyte details what it takes to make these spaces and places vibrant centres for the community. And yet Liverpool’s waterfront–at least this stretch of it–was empty. At eight thirty on a beautiful Wednesday evening in July, next to no one was there, and the one who was engaged in a process of reappropriation.

As a walked on, I looked for clues as to why this may be. Turning around from the slack-liner, I saw that he was playing in the shadow of the Open Eye Gallery which, just out of shot, had its contemporary architectural style disjunctured by the presence of an old Sail-and-Rope ship.


Surely, with the presence of these cultural sites, the question must be asked: why is the waterfront so empty? Perhaps the answer lies in the following picture:


A major section of the gallery itself is (however temporary) empty and un-used. But deeper than this, just about visible in the reflection from the glass, a fleet of cranes can be seen hanging over the Liverpool skyline. These signs of regeneration are missing something key: human presence and interaction. These places, these spaces, are being made, and yet no one is inhabiting them and making means in, around, and about them.

Just around the corner from the Open Eye Gallery, as I crossed the two four-lane roads and entered the ‘Commercial District’ of the city, I noticed that even car traffic was thin on the ground. What was it about this space, this place, and this part of Liverpool that meant it was being so under-used at this time of day? As I walked further into the Commercial District in the general direction of my room, I noticed that almost everywhere was closed. Passing closed-down high-end restaurants–stripped of all inside except the gleaming stainless steel kitchens inside–I felt a sense of disjointed temporality. These magnificent old buildings re-purposed, then stripped of that purpose and left to age again, but containing something that would not show the ravages of use and age.

This carried on, passing the odd open bar/restaurant as I passed, until I walked up outside my hotel. But just before I went inside, I heard the noise of skateboard wheels on smooth paving stones. Turning around the corner, I was thrilled to see three teenagers skating in front of what appeared to be an empty high rise office complex. I took a video of this second instance of the reappropriation of space, before realizing just what it was that these skaters were testing themselves against, which I couldn’t resist taking a picture of.


I’ve been thinking a lot about defensive architecture recently, and this second appropriation in an hour seemed too perfect not to document. The metal studs you see on the side of these uncomfortable marble seats are designed for one purpose only: to stop skateboards grinding along the sides. Of course, the argument could be made that they are there are a deterrent to homelessness, or to discourage people from sitting for too long, but I suggest that there aren’t enough, or in the right position, to come to this conclusion. But hopefully you can see from the photo, that in lieu of this, the skaters have taken to grinding along the tops of the seats instead.

This reappropriation of space–in front of an empty office high rise in the so called ‘Commercial District’ of the city–was too good to pass up on, but gave me the same kind of optimism I felt at witnessing the slack-lining that started this thought pattern off. It certainly went a long way to countering the state of dereliction–or at least uninhabited condition–of much of the Commercial District I saw. Indeed, as I’ve been writing this, I’ve been glancing out of my window. All I can see over the other rooms is another empty office building, set back off the road and away from the possibility of tourists seeing the contradiction of Liverpool’s regeneration. The cranes and new contemporary buildings that line the waterfront are held in stark contrast to the empty, 1960s and 70s buildings that run through the Commercial District just a few streets back from the waterfront. In much the same way as the cranes being barely visible in the picture of the empty gallery space, the emptiness and signs of use and age of much of the Commercial District are almost obscured by the presence of regeneration and the ostracism of regular city dwellers and users.

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‘Places to flourish? Edge Space and the Formative Process’

After a great day at The Alchemical Landscape symposium, I thought I’d upload my paper here in case people felt like giving it a read. This is a relatively new area of work for me–particularly the occultural focus–but it was nice to explore new horizons, as it were. While this area won’t become one of intense focus for me, it will certainly be influencing my thinking for a long time to come!

You can find the paper by clicking here–Places to flourish? Edge Spaces and the Formative Process–and do keep your eyes peeled for a new digital mapping project I will be announcing soon which, like the radio show, will be hosted here on the blog!

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The Alchemical Landscape

I’m very happy to say that my paper has been accepted for The Alchemical Landscape symposium at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, on the 28th of March 2015. Convened by James Riley and Yvonne Salmon, it’s going to be a great day on a really interesting theme. I will update the blog with more details closer to the time (hopefully with a full program) and I am planning–time permitting–to live blog/live tweet the talks throughout the day. I’ve included the abstract for my provisionally titled paper Places to flourish?: Edge spaces and the formative process’ in which I’ll be examining the creative potential of edge spaces.


Places to flourish?: Edge spaces and the formative process

‘Edge spaces’ abound in literature of the postmodern and contemporary period. From J. G. Ballard’s Shepperton in The Unlimited Dream Company—urban suburb-cum-rural/tropical wilderness—to Gary Spencer Millidge’s illustrated village of Strangehaven, by way of the blogs The Haunted Shoreline and On Vanishing Space, edge spaces are, to paraphrase Professor Edward Casey, ‘areas of creative potential’. Examining a number of edge spaces, including those mentioned above, this paper will examine the act of creation in these edge spaces, ultimately suggesting that the traditionally stagnant view attached to them—things ‘washing up’ on beaches, existing ‘quietly’ on the outskirts, spaces ‘sub’rural and ‘sub’urban—is misplaced when one considers the alchemical transformations that take place within them.

Indeed, the stagnation attached to edge spaces is an idea that needs discussion and deconstruction. The inclusion of The Unlimited Dream Company in a collection titled ‘The Terminal Collection’ suggests, among other things, that the act of being in an edge space is to be at the end of the line, devoid of possibility or further transport. The works above all present rural spaces (or spaces ruralised) in an enchanted manner, from which new creative possibilities can be synthesised and edge spaces (re)endowed with their own alchemical qualities. In doing so, these texts suggest that edge spaces are potent sites from which new creations can be drawn. Adopting alchemical ideas of the transmutation of base metals into precious metal, these texts mimic this act. I will argue that the reframing of these popularly considered waste spaces not only recognises them as sites of potential, but that in the act of writing, a new value is given to them, potentially (and problematically) turning edge space into consumable landscape: the base turned precious.

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Pushed by the desire to submit something freshly written during my first year of postgraduate study for the writing sample for my PhD applications, this past week and the one coming has been (and will continue to be) filled with reading and work around a few of Allen Ginsberg’s poems, starting with Howl (1955-56), and moving on through Bayonne Entering NYC (1966) and Memory Gardens (1969).

This project initially started around the idea that Drop City and the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood could be seen, and analysed, as sites of encounter, in the Lefebvrian sense, with particular emphasis on the idea of ‘the street’ as the site of this encounter. Reliant on Peter Rabbit’s Drop City (1971) and Hunter S. Thompson’s The Hashbury is the Capital of the Hippies (1967), I came to realise (after a protracted two days of banging my head against the idea) that I was attempting to impose a study onto something that wasn’t resisting the idea, but simply didn’t contain the grounds for it.

'Drop City' by Peter Rabbit

So, after a bit of thinking, I decided to expand the idea out from just encounter to thinking about some more of Lefebvre’s ideas in relation to ‘the semiology of the city’ (see Writing on Cities, p.114), and began thinking about ‘the utterance…the language…[and] the writing of the city’ (ibid. p.115), in relation to Allen Ginsberg. Despite being one of my favourite poets, I’ve never written on Ginsberg before, and certainly never thought about him as a distinctly ‘urban’ poet, but this project has quickly grown into looking at the city as dialectic, with Ginsberg’s imaginative discourse both helping to and indeed representing the point of synthesis and sublation. While the early draft–though with significant work–will be going off with my U.S applications for PhD as a sample of writing, the piece is intended for one of my MA modules and will follow much the same course as the draft. But this idea has propelled my thinking forwards, and stemmed two ideas for other projects.

First, I am framing Ginsberg’s ‘city’–nominally New York City, but also ‘America’ as a wider concept–as a sacrificial city, and working on an abstract for a Call for Papers put out by the Canadian Review of American Studies special issue, ‘Death in the Cityscape’. That CfP can be found here. Second, and taking the idea of sacrifice in a completely different direction, I am preparing an abstract in response to a CfP by the Cambridge Countercultural Research Group. The one-day symposium is titled The Alchemical Landscape: Counterculture, Occulture, and the Geographic Turn, and will be held at Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge on the 23rd of March, 2015. My abstract will be focussed on the parallels between Stonehenge and Manhattanhenge, in light of Ginsberg’s urban concerns. You can find a copy of the CfP at the end of this post.

So a busy few months coming up, with all this alongside the last few episodes of Tripping In Babylon radio show, as well as my election to the position of Librarian and Archivist with University Radio York.

Counterculture, Occulture and the Geographic Turn

Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge
23rd March 2015

An interdisciplinary symposium presented by the Cambridge University
Counterculture Research Group

“If any one book put ley lines on the map, re-enchanted the British
landscape and made Glastonbury the capital of the New Age it was John
Michell’s seminal 1969 tome The View Over Atlantis.” —Bob Rickard,
Fortean Times, 2009.

In an age of vast ecological crisis and a widespread re-calibration of the
arts and humanities towards questions of eco-criticism, an increasing
number of writers, artists and film-makers are re-investing the landscape
with esoteric and mythic imagery. From the revival of ‘Folk Horror’ to the
cross-over between magical and artistic practice, this ‘enchanted’
representation of the rural works as both a link to the past and an
articulation of pressing contemporary concerns.

This special one-day symposium at the University of Cambridge seeks to
explore the creative, aesthetic and political implications of this
‘geographic turn’.

300-word proposals for presentations of up to 20 minutes are invited on any
aspect of this theme.

Possible topics could include but are not limited to:

– John Michell, T.C. Lethbridge, J.A Baker, T.H. White, Helen Macdonald,
Paul Devereux, Andrew Collins, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Alan Moore, Derek
Jarman, Penny Slinger, Arthur Machen, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Dennis
Parry, Sven Berlin, Geraldine Monk, Michael Bracewell, Gary Spencer
Millidge, Alice Oswald, David Pinner, Diana Durham, Charlotte Hussey, Brian
Catling, Janni Howker.

– English Heretic, Ghost Box, Drew Mulholland, Julian Cope, The Outer
Church, Pye Corner Audio, Matt Shaw, The Sinister Insult, Phil Legard, The
Geography Trip, The Wyrding Module, The Haunted Shoreline, The House in the
Woods, Wyrd England Gazetteer, The Soulless Party, A Year in the Country,
Wyrdstone, Scarfolk, The Old Weird Albion, The Sons of T.C. Lethbridge,
Psychic Field Recordings.

– The Stone Tape, Children of the Stones, Quatermass and the Pit, A Field
in England, The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Antichrist, Voodoo
Science Park, Robinson in Ruins, On Vanishing Land, Cobra Mist, The Living
Dead at the Manchester Morgue, The Owl Service, Robin Redbreast, Penda’s

– Mystical, visionary and imaginative landscapes, folklore, hauntology,
alternative nostalgia, psychogeography, speculative archaeology, inner
space, psychedelic pastoralism, the contemporary bucolic.

– The creative potential of magical thinking, Fortean phenomena and
parapsychological practices: crop circles, dowsing, residual haunting,
remote viewing, geomancy.

Proposals can be e-mailed to:

Deadline: 5th January 2015.

Please include a short biographical note with your submission.


Yvonne Salmon FRSA FRGS FRAI
Preceptor, Corpus Christi College
Lecturer, University of Cambridge

James Riley FRSA
Fellow of English
Corpus Christi College
University of Cambridge

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