The Alchemical Landscape II


Following on from the success of the first Alchemical Landscape symposium in March 2015, we're mounting a second event. It will be held at Girton College, Cambridge on 7th July. For more details relating to ticket purchase, venue and to see a draft programme, please head over to the project website.

Images from The Other Side

Haunted Tape
Photo: Evie Salmon

Thanks to everyone who worked hard to make The Other Side such a successful event: Evie Salmon, Jo Brook, Jeremy Hardingham, Robin the Fog and Howlround, Andy Sharp, Hannah Gilbert and Documents. It was great to see so many people there. I think we really achieved what Bad Timing and The Alchemical Landscape set out to do! We've gathered together various photographs, video and sound files as documentation of the event. Scroll down for some images and captions. A link to video evidence will follow shortly. Bad Timing have a photo collection visible here

Preparing for 'Dust'
Photo: Evie Salmon
'Dust' in performance
Photo: Jo Brook
'Dust': Strange energies 
Photo: Jo Brook 
Documents preparing 
Photo: Evie Salmon 

Documents in performance 
Photo: Jo Brook
Documents: Boleskine House
Photo: Jo Brook
Bad Timing DJs
Photo: Ed Ramage 
Matter and sound
Photo: Ed Ramage
Machine noise 
Photo: Ed Ramage 
Bad Timing DJs: at the controls
Photo: Ed Ramage
Howlround: View from the bridge
Photo: Evie Salmon 
Howlround in action 
Photo: Evie Salmon 
Howlround, audience and extended tape
Photo: Jo Brook
Howlround after show
Photo: Jo Brook


The Other Side

Bishop James Pike

I'm very happy to announce 'The Other Side: An Audiophonic Séance'. Working with Evie Salmon under the Alchemical Landscape banner, we've had the pleasure of collaborating with Jo Brook of Bad Timing to bring together "a night of dead formats, traces, sites and spectres from the underground". 

The event features a series of acts and performances connected via a shared interest in the mediumistic power of recording technology: 

Evie Salmon & James Riley performing 'Dust'
bad timing djs: mix tapes from the underground

We'll be holding the event at the Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio, Faculty of English, 9 West Road, Cambridge on Thursday 12th May, 7.30pm. 

Tickets are free but places are limited. Please reserve via eventbrite:


We're also inviting you to consider a £5 donation towards performers' travel costs. 

For more information, see the Bad Timing website and scroll down for details of each act. 


Howlround is an ongoing exploration of the possibilities of magnetic tape as a creative medium for electronic music. Their live performances and compositions are created entirely by manipulating tape loops of natural acoustic sounds on vintage reel-to-reel machines, with additional reverb or electronic effects strictly forbidden. Their fourth LP Tales From the Black Tangle was released at the end of 2015 and was a dark and compelling concoction of industrial sirens, foghorns, seawash, ship to shore distress signals and even the creaking of a Broadcasting House microphone cradle in need of some oil.

'Uncanny, mesmerising, difficult and sublime' The Quietus


Documents is a nascent development of the long running creative occult project English Heretic. Documents has been set up to explore a remit of ethnographic recordings from the imaginal world. Combining the aesthetic of Bataille's surrealist journal Documents with the hermetic psychology of James Hillman, the project represents a deepening of the themes laid out by English Heretic. Documents first broadcast was released on the Eighth Climate imprint in December 2015.

Documents will perform two pieces. "Music For The Execution Of Geoffrey Firmin" An imaginary séance for the tragic protagonist of Malcolm Lowry's Under The Volcano abstracting dialogue from the film adaptation of Lowry's book to achieve rapport the spectre of Firmin. "Last Broadcast at Boleskine" manipulates field recordings taken at the cemetery overlooked by Aleister Crowley's notorious Loch Ness home. These recordings, carried out on the 1st December 2015, anniversary of Crowley's death, shortly before Boleskine House burned down, constitute music to precipitate the violent demise of an abode on the borderland. Together these pieces explore landscape, film and documentary dialogue as a form of theatrical EVP.

Evie Salmon and James Riley work across multiple faculties at the University of Cambridge. They co-direct The Alchemcial Landscape, an ongoing research and public engagement project looking at occulture and geography.

'Dust' is a speculative investigation into the afterlife of two lost recordings by Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. Spoken word, archival murmurings and dead formats.


bad timing djs mix tapes: experiments from the underground


A note on the image above: Bishop James Pike (1913-1969) was an American Episcopal Minister, one of the first to make regular television appearances. Following the death of his son in 1966, Pike began to experience paranormal phenomena. In 1967 he appeared with the medium Arthur Ford as part of a television seance to contact his son. These experiences formed the basis of his book The Other Side (1969). Philip K. Dick based the character of Timothy Archer on Pike when he wrote his novel The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982). 

Pike and his book will not be directly referenced on May 12th, but for obvious reasons his symbolic life has informed some of the thinking behind the event. 


Signals from the Future: High Rise Preview Tour

High Rise Live: EV and JR in conversation at the Picturehouse screening
Photo: George Bickers

Last weekend the High Rise preview tour came to the Cambridge Picturehouse. There was to be a special screening plus a post-film Q&A chaired by Evie Salmon. Good stuff. A fortuitous turn of events on the day resulted in me being drafted in to act as the interviewee on the night. I was, of course, more than happy to do this. In fact I was delighted to be asked....

The screening was sold out and after a quick planning conference Evie and I held court on the work of Jeremy Thomas, the unrealized 'ghost' versions of High Rise and hauntological messages from the future. I've added something akin to a transcript below. Many thanks to Evie for the invite and many thanks to the Cambridge Picturehouse for their hospitality. 

EV: High Rise is being touted, rightly so, as another great film from Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley. We'll talk about the Writer / Director team in a moment. Let's just start though by talking about the film's equally distinctive producer, Jeremy Thomas. How do you think High Rise fits in with the rest of his oeuvre

JR: I think it fits very well. In fact I think Jeremy Thomas's signature is all over this. Thomas seems to approach his work as a producer in a manner similar to that of a curator. He seems to commission, as it were, the films he would like to see. He's not unlike the Tony Wilson of independent film. In terms of outlook and attitude, High Rise sits right alongside Thomas's other adaptations of 'difficult', post-1945 works of fiction. He did Naked Lunch with David Cronenberg in 1991 and of course Cronenberg's 'other' J.G. Ballard adaptation Crash in 1996. In 1990 he produced Bernardo Bertolucci's film of The Sheltering Sky (1949) by Paul Bolwes and he also produced David Mackenzie's version of Alexander Trocchi's Young Adam (1954) in 2003. He's done other projects and his portfolio is admirably extensive but there is this consistent return to film projects based on controversial, if not transgressive texts and film projects which help to develop the work of challenging, idiosyncratic directors. On the basis of that modus operandi, doing Ballard's High Rise (1975) with Jump and Wheatley makes complete sense.

Toronto high rise: Cronenberg's Crash (1996) 

Having said that, I would imagine that for Thomas there's quite a degree of personal investment in this particular film. I believe he's held the rights to the novel for the best part of 30 years. There have been at least two other attempts in that time of bringing it to the screen with Thomas as producer. The first was with Nicolas Roeg in the late 1970s. Paul Mayersberg worked on the screenplay after The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Roeg was all set for it before ultimately opting to make Bad Timing (1980), also produced by Thomas. I think Roeg was a good choice for High Rise. Certainly Performance (1970) and Walkabout (1971) both have an emphasis on transformative 'zones' that's not dissimilar to the type of spaces one finds in Ballard. Whatever the reason for it not coming together, let's just pause and imagine what could have been: a version of High Rise by Roeg possibly featuring David Bowie as Royal, Art Garfunkel as Laing and Theresa Russell as Charlotte Melville. I would have liked to have seen that....

The other version I know about was also to have been produced by Thomas with a screenplay by Richard Stanley and directed by Vincenzo Natali. This came up in about 2010. Again, I think this was a very good choice as a creative team. Stanley had dealt with weird events in a tower block in his classic Hardware (1990) and Natali had done brilliant things with ideas of entrapment and enclosure in Cube (1997). A poster emerged for this version and I believe they had opted to re-imagine the novel's London high-rise as the 'Elysium Tower', a contemporary, super-modern residential building in the middle of the sea.   

Vincenzo Natali's High Rise Is A Beautiful Skyscraper Of Doom
Teaser poster from the unrealized High Rise 

EV: Do you think this 'up-dated' version of the film would have worked?

JR: No. Stanley and Natali are brilliant film-makers and I'm sure this would have been an extremely interesting dystopian film, but I don't think it would have been a very accurate J.G. Ballard film. Apparently Thomas pushed a futurological take on the book and there is something prophetic about Ballard's writing. But at the same time he's very much an author of the mid-20th century. High Rise, the novel, is deeply inscribed into its social, economic and material context: Britain in the 1970s. Ballard is, in essence, a science fiction author but he's invariably terrestrial. He's far more interested in inner rather than outer space and his project is to look at the psychopathology of the world, particularly the architecture he sees around him. High Rise is his attack, so to speak, on the material and psychological culture of the 1970s. Its events, scenarios and narrative structure would have to change significantly to set it anywhere (or any-when) else. I just don't think the idea would work in a world of mobile phones, social media, out-sourced private security and total surveillance.

About same time that Stanley was developing High Rise, he was also slated to write and direct another project called Vacation. Vacation featured two American tourists stuck in "a seedy Middle Eastern resort" due to "freak solar storms that eradicate all means of communication". This is purely speculative on my part but I would imagine that to make its scenario half-way feasible this contemporary version of High Rise would have had to involve something similar: somekind of external force or event that causes the building to be cut-off. An interesting idea but not necessarily what Ballard was getting at. This is a long, roundabout way of saying that the main success of Wheatley's version is the fact that it is set specifically in the 1970s. 

EV: In the light of this long gestation then, you're saying that Jeremy Thomas finally found the perfect director in Ben Wheatley? 

JR: I think it certainly makes sense for Wheatley to be making this type of film at this stage in his career. It's the right kind of step-up in terms of budget, cast, exposure etc after films like Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013). On a more symbolic level I guess there's what you might call a 'spiritual' inheritance at play with Wheatley making the film. He's on record talking about the influence of Roeg on his own work. At that level its appropriate that he's now taken on and completed Roeg's previously unrealized project. More specifically High Rise fits in very well with Wheatley's ongoing mining of 1970s British culture and what appears to be a developing pre-occupation for dealing with aspects of the British psyche. With A Field in England he looked at aspects of British folklore and Sightseers (2012) analyzed the not-so implicit violence that underwrites the British attitude to the tourist landscape. High Rise shifts focus to urbanism but not without maintaining an emphasis on classic British obsessions: class, manners, status. For all its violence, there's something strangely passive aggressive about both the book and the film. Its savagery comes from the same psychic battlefield covered in the likes of Abigail's Party (1977).

Purgatory: Abigail's Party (1977)

EV: Would you say that Wheatley has come up with a film that's particularly Ballardian?

JR: There are some differences between the novel and Amy Jump's script so, as with any other adaptation, its not totally faithful to the text. That said, I think the film does get the Ballardian sensibility pretty much bang-on. By that I mean Ballard works through a very particular paradigm within his fiction. His concept of inner space is based upon an awareness of a feedback loop between an individual and their built environment. This is one of the primary preoccupations of Ballard's so-called 'Concrete and Steel' trilogy: Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise. To put it bluntly, in High Rise, Ballard attributes a ambiguous level of agency to the building itself. The events of the novel are not neo-Luddite acts of agitation against architecture but are the results of the building realizing its design. The challenge and difficulty of Ballard's writing lies in accepting these events as things to be welcomed if not actively sought out. When seen in the context of Ballard's wider work it is not intended as 'dystopian'.

This is what separates Ballard from a number of comparable texts. There's Cronenberg's first main feature, Shivers (1975) and John Wagner's Judge Dredd story for 2000AD, 'Block Mania' (1981). In Shivers, a strange parasite infects a luxury apartment block leading to all kinds of psycho-sexual chaos. In 'Block Mania' a two gigantic residential towers go to war. Whilst ostensibly similar to High Rise, both of these scenarios are based on the introduction of something 'other' to an otherwise stable community: a hitherto unknown parasite and water-borne poison. This type of 'alien' entity simply does not exist in High Rise. What Ballard describes can be taken as either an amplification of what's already there in the residents or some other form of response to the corporate stricture. Either way there's something about the building that fascinates Ballard. Wheatley and Jump, I think, make this very clear. It would have been really easy to do a kind of 28 Days Later in a tower block but they wisely focus on the strange attraction and resonances of the building's structure to the extent that it becomes a character. The glimpse we get of Royal's synaptic schematics puts this psychogeographical aspect firmly in the frame. It's very much, as Ballard says in the novel, a case of Laing being "exhilarated by the high rise".

Starliner Towers in Cronenberg's Shivers

EV: We've spoken a lot about Ben Wheatley. I think we need to talk about the other side of this creative process, Amy Jump's excellent screenplay. Clearly, she's absorbed much of the ambience of the novel but as you say, there are some changes. Changes for the better?

JR: The changes make for a better film in these sense that the characters are a little more fleshed out. Ballard basically brings together a series of ciphers and sets them to work in the scenario he builds for the text. They are as hermetic as the building because there's very little in the way of any backstory. In addition to developing characters like the boy Toby, Jump does a good job of giving Laing not so much a pre-history as a little more depth. The scenes of him in the teaching hospital and the way that they feed into an integral subplot add a veneer of complexity to the psychological interactions of the film. There's a sense that Laing has something fermenting before he starts getting involved in the psychotic cocktail parties.

Aside from matters of plot one thing that does change is some aspects of the technological specificity that Ballard makes use of. When Wilder begins to climb the high rise under the auspices of making his documentary he is described as carrying a cine-camera. In the film this becomes an early video camera linked to a portable VCR. Although its far from the most implausible aspect of the film in one sense this is an effective change. Technically a cine-camera would give Wilder only a few minutes of filming time per reel: good for the sleazy bathroom porn that's made in the film but not good for a documentary. But that said, Ballard didn't drop the ball here, he just used references to technology in a different way. Wheatley and Jump use the video camera almost as a non-anachronistic means of Wilder taking a selfie. For Ballard, the whole point was that Wilder would run out of film quickly. This allows Ballard to then describe Wilder brandishing an empty camera as he climbs further up, as if it is a totemic residue of his 'past' life, a bit like the wicker camera in Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie (1971).

Hopper: The Last Movie (1971) 

EV: I thought the aesthetics of the film were rendered beautifully. It looked great but at the same time was somewhat lo-fi. This seemed to come out not only in the way that the film looked but also how it sounded. I'm thinking in particular of Portishead's version of ABBA's 'SOS' (1975). The song came out in the same year as the novel. Using the contemporary cover allows it to work as a kind of dissonant parallel: historically accurate but at the same time uncanny.

JR: Yes, that's a real high point in the film. It goes hand in hand with the very accurate rendition of the film's entire, enclosed world. Sonically and visually the whole thing feels extremely real: solid. But as you say it's twisted in the direction of an alternative, altered image. For me the dissonance you describe comes out mostly strongly in some of the set design. The interiors of the high rise itself, particularly the corridors, the lobbies and aspects of the tower garden really remind me of a set of buildings in Marseilles designed by Le Corbusier. Known collectively as the Radiant City (1947-1952), they were built according the architectural principles of the unite d'habitation. Essentially this is a philosophy of modernist design that works to establish an invigorating and improving relationship between the inhabitant and their environment. The main block in Marseilles is a fascinating building that works as a type of modernist sun temple. It has long,dark corridors that open out into blazing sun traps. The roof has a wonderful, almost surreal concrete garden. Royal would feel very at home there. The look of the high rise in the film really calls this to mind.

EV: Marseilles is linked to a project of yours I believe?

JR: Yes very much so, thanks for the plug! Along with the writer and poet David Ashford, I'm making a film about the Radiant City and Unite d'habitation. Not a documentary exactly but rather a speculative piece that connects Marseilles to High Rise. Its based around the (fictional) conceit that not only did Ballard take the building as the inspiration for High Rise but that he based the novel as a whole upon a series of events that took place there. One of Ballard's earlier short stories, 'The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista' (1962) uses the device of a 'psychotronic house': a building that responds to the mood of the occupant, records those moods and 'replays' them back in an odd, affective feedback loop. Of course, the interest for Ballard lies in the potential of this structure to record and replay the affective results of a traumatic event to another inhabitant. Our film takes this idea as its central theme and hypothesizes that Le Corbusier's building has somehow absorbed the events of its fictional double, and this information can be accessed by performing of a series of psychogeographic practices in situ. David and I spent a few days there, getting a sense of the atmosphere in the concrete garden, shooting loads of video and generally running up and down the corridors yelling at each other. As ever, its a work in progress but its coming together well. The finished film will use different kinds of video and cine footage to do a kind of High Rise remix: Ballard re-situated in Marseilles and mixed with Le Corbusier's brutalist utopianism.

Still from a work in progress: Unite d'habitation, Marseilles

EV: Towards the end of the film, we see a young boy looking to the air with a home-made radio. We hear Margaret Thatcher's speech to the House of Commons on 24 November 1976 when she was leader of the opposition. Then we hear The Fall's 'Industrial Estate', released in 1979, the year Thatcher comes to power as Prime Minister. So what's this, High Rise as a test bed for Thatcherism? A radio broadcast from the future that breaks into this documentary on urban planning and the problems arising from shared freehold? 

JR: You're absolutely right. I think its precisely those carefully chosen details that prevent the film from being 'just' a 1970s pastiche. It makes the film somewhat hauntological in its politics. The boy tunes into the near future but seen in 2016 it's a mournful futurology: we're invited to lament what this 'future' became.



Review Essays

Cambridge QuarterlyCambridge QuarterlyStudies in Theatre and Performance

I've had some recent review essays published in The Cambridge Quarterly and Studies in Theatre and Performance.  I say 'recent' but they actually straddle the last few years. This seems somewhat glacial but academic book circulation, opinion gathering and dissemination works according to its own pace. I was glad to get the chance to read over and comment on Sherryl Vint's Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed, Katy Shaw's David Peace: Texts and Contexts and Rachel Lee Rubin's Well Met: Renaissance Fairs and the American Counterculture. Click the images above for links to the relevant journals.


Interview with Evie Salmon in Otherzine

Otherzine, the underground film magazine based out of San Francisco's great Other Cinema, have just published their 30th edition. It’s been issued to coincide with Other Cinema's 2016 Spring Programme. Edited by Molly Hankwitz, Otherzine 30: M a T e R i A L Cinema

[…] explores the material processes of film making, whether digital or analogue, small-screen, handmade or multiplex; performed, or projected, performed and projected, historical or recent. We are especially proud of this wonderful and enigmatic collection; clever, individual pieces each a producing a thoughtful glance at or analyzing some component of “materiality” with a very  strong emphasis, as it turns out, upon “live” cinema performance, and the performance of cinema.

Fleapit: Somewhere in the North
I’m happy to say that I’ve been included in this issue. The brilliant Evie Salmon graciously took some time out to interview me about Fleapit and the Road Movies project. As you’ll see from the text, because she’s been there since the start, Evie is ideally placed to ask the right kind of questions from the right kind of angle. It was a real pleasure to revisit the very earliest Fleapit shows in this interview which Evie expertly edited from a much longer conversation. Her introduction gets it bang on: shambolic shows, dodgy cowboy boots, disinterested crowds. The battlefield she describes was a brief foray I undertook to Edinburgh just as Fleapit was starting out in Lancaster. An additional point of circularity comes with the link to Other Cinema. Craig Baldwin’s work was a massive influence on Fleapit and continues to inform my thinking on film more generally. As such, it’s a great pleasure to now have the project covered in Otherzine

You can read the issue here. To go to the interview direct, click here


Ghosts Everywhere

I was back up North recently to do a talk on Gothic writing. During the trip I found myself drawn, drawn, to an area I used to visit as a child: the Accrington – Blackburn stretch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. I’ve written about this waterway before. But this particular section, known semi-officially as Cycle Route 6, is the part I had in mind when going on about strange snake appearances.

Cycle Route 6:
complete with raindrops on the video camera lens
This spot marks out something of a borderland between open fields and dense industrial sites. Upstream, the canal moves past a series of small towns and remains largely hidden at their edges. Sometimes it will raise its head at a road bridge but it mainly seems content to meander beside fields and (now more likely) golf courses. But at this point, just before Church Kirk, the canal leaves a wide open expanse and begins to narrow as it moves alongside the flanking walls of Blythe Chemicals. I could make a cheap point and allude to Axis Chemicals from the 1989 Batman film which, to be honest, I always had in mind whenever I passed the factory site. But to draw on such a deliberately blighted image would entirely miss the point. There’s no binary tension here between the industrial and the rural, with the former as some kind of pox upon the latter. It’s easy to place canals with roads and railways as transportation systems that have encroached upon and negatively impacted the landscape. But like hedgerows, dry stone walls and towpaths, the canal represents another form of infrastructural cultivation that has scaped the land over successive generations of its working life, both agricultural and heavy-industrial.

You can see the traces of this intermingling all along the pathway. Before the canal meets the yards at Blythe's, you come across a set of submerged coke ovens: odd, brick igloos once used to carbonize coal. Most of them have been filled in and you can just about see the brick domes undulating under the scrub-land. In the late 1980s and early 90s though, they were much more exposed and lay like pit traps in the ground. I think someone once made the obvious link and used them as the backdrop for a film about the First World War. Part trenches and part mortar craters, they carry the archaeological resonances of the site, much like the imprinted caisson walls in J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun (1987).

Today it’s clear that the canal has moved away from its role in factory trade and transportation, but this specific stretch of waterway is not entirely post-industrial nor is it fully gentrified. Despite the occasional houseboat and despite being implicitly re-branded as a leisure site, Cycle Route 6 doesn’t seem to have fully shaken off the dust of its coal-charging past. It's redundant in the original sense of the word: the waters are still, but it feels active with industrial and chemical energy. Rammed somewhere between a chemical plant and the Nori brick works up at Whinney Hill; crossed with railway lines and in sight of garages and back-street scrap yards, it’s not particularly picturesque, it’s not particularly quiet and it’s always looked stagnant, like something straight out of John Barr’s Derelict Britain (1969). This, of course, is why I like it so much.

The House on the Borderland
I had been reading Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983) ahead of the trip. In addition to understanding the value of a carefully constructed framing device, Hill places her writing well within the tradition of M.R. James and horizontal, landscape gothic. Where James has his East Anglian beaches, Hill transplants wintered Suffolk to the imaginary marshlands of the north east, “a remote corner of England”. Crossing the Nine Lives Causeway to reach the notorious Eel Marsh House, Hills’s narrator Arthur Kipps describes the estuary plain as a space of sublime bleakness:

Today there were no clouds at all, but I could well imagine how magnificently the huge, brooding area of sky would look with grey, scudding rain and storm clouds lowering over the estuary, how it would be here in the floods of February time when the marshes turned to iron-grey and the sky seeped down into them, and in the high winds of March, when the light rippled, shadow chasing shadow across the ploughed fields.

The monochromatic colour-scheme, the rain, the flatness and the sly hints of agriculture and industry: all this matches my impressions of the Accrington-Blackburn canal. It matches my impressions but also, inevitably, my memories, complete with all the fabricated, simulated and nostalgic productivity that accompanies them.

Shortly after this description comes Kipps’s first encounter with Eel Marsh House itself:

It stood like some lighthouse or beacon or martello tower, facing the whole, wide expanse of marsh and estuary, the most astonishingly situated house I had ever seen or could ever have conceivably imagined, isolated, uncompromising but also, I thought, handsome. As we neared it, I saw the land on which it stood was raised up a little, surrounding it on every side for perhaps three or four hundred yards, of plain, salt-bleached grass, and then gravel. This little island extended in a southerly direction across an area of scrub and field towards what looked like the fragmentary ruins of some old church or chapel.

This is James’s preceptory rendered by way of Poe’s House of Usher. The marshland is another “singularly dreary tract of country” where Kipps ‘finds’ himself after travelling “the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day”. On Route 6 there’s a similar house that stands in the fields on the far side of the canal. It lies parallel with the verge of the railway elevation on a small valley floor. In my mind this tract was an open, barren plateau in which the single house stood as if on a parched island. As a child I remember passing by and feeling something like vertigo. You walk down a path that’s filled with vegetation, but as soon as the tree line breaks, the space opens out to this seemingly vast expanse and there’s this lone anchor embedded in the middle of it. Hill’s ground of “plain salt-bleached grass” brought all this back to me. As with the space she describes in her book, what I remember is an area utterly different from the surrounding fields. Punctuated by the brick domes of the coke ovens and no doubt blasted by years of their exhaust fumes, it felt flat, bleached and drained. There was also this long, serpentine chemical pipe running across the far side like some kind of zonal marker.

Heavy rain
When I went back there the whole place was smaller. It was compact, neat and even. Just a house beyond a fence. I doubt this difference came about due to the shaping and re-shaping of the landscape. In fact, I doubt that my earlier version ever physically existed. So where did it this ‘remembered’ area actually come from in the first place? It feels like an old memory rather than a recently mis-remembered veneer. The combined scene of factories, water and strange dereliction is one that I’ve often imaginatively returned to. And it’s been the connection – emotional, probably – to this set of images that has led me to certain texts, not the other way round. That’s to say, I don’t think reading James et al has embellished this place-memory. I’ve gravitated towards his texts and similar, in part, in order to further extend a type of psychic purchase in the memory of an area that was already heavily embellished.

I like these hinterlands precisely because they carry this generative effect: they prompt ideas and images. My home town and its environs is full of yards, quarries, canal paths and millponds. The train out of Accrington used to pass over all kinds of factory sites with their standing waters, holding areas and stockpiles. It was not unlike flying over an apocalyptic scene. Every time, the response was a series of questions: what is this place? Who works here? What happened here? The resonance they emit has little to do with a ‘past’ or any other original point. Instead, it’s more like a continuing oscillation. Now that the industrial and geographic landscape of Route 6 has changed, I don’t mourn the ‘loss’ of the canal side I knew as a child. I never knew it in this form. The weird vista I’ve had in my head for a couple of decades has always been in there. And I’m happy for it to stay in its dome and to continue to develop in whichever way it wants.

Hill knew all about this internal landscape. Here’s how she described Suffolk in “the Seventies”:

The blackened hull of a rotting boat lay low in the mud. The last geese squawked home in the darkening sky. I sensed ghosts everywhere, looked behind me as I walked faster. There was a strange, steely light glinting, and shadows. Easy to let your imagination run away with you there and the scene stayed with me, though it was another 10 years before I actually made use of it.

She made use of it when composing The Woman in Black. Imaginary Suffolk was transplanted to some indeterminate “corner” as part of Kipps’s journey “North”. Whatever haunted her about her daily walking route had little to do with the land itself. What stayed with her was the germ of the work to come.