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Peter the Great’s Monsters – The Kunstkamera museum.

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Peter the Great

There’s a scene in Gullimero del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone where a character offers a boy a drink he’s just ladled out of a large glass jar in which a dead, mutated featus is distilled. The featus suffers from ‘the devil’s backbone’, a mutation which causes the spine to protrude from the body. In the film it stands as a metaphor for ‘children who should never have been born’.

 

The Devil’s Backbone joins the ranks of many many gothic horror films in which people (often mad scientists) display featuses or other creatures in liquid filled jars. It’s a trope that is so prevelant in films that it serves as short hand for ‘deranged experimenter’ in contemporary horror and sci fi films.

Growing up with these kind of films I’d always considered this to be some strange phenomenon contained only to the realm of movies. I never put much thought into where the trope came from and certainly didn’t expect to see such things in reality.

Of course that was before I visited the Кунсткамера (Kunstkamera) museum in St Petersburg.

 

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View of Кунсткамера across the frozen River Neva

 

Кунсткамера, sometimes accurately described as a cabinate of cultural oddities, was the very first museum in Saint Petersburg. Established by Peter the Great, the museum was part of a project to educate the population. Peter saw the Кунсткамера as a means of preserving and feeding humanity’s natural sense of curiosity.

Since its completion in 1727 the museum has seen countless exhibitions and items added to its now world famous collection. It’s impressive in its scale, beautiful in its presentation and, at times, plain odd in its content.

Upon entering the museum we were greeted by a huge, wooden statue of some unknown, bizarrely well endowed mutant, demon, god or something else. As an indicator of what was to come I think it served its purpose well.

a90a0b5cb568e7ea4db367e76b373ab1The first few floors of the museum are dedicated to the anthropology and ethnology collections. Most, if not all, major cultures are represented here in huge floor to ceiling glass cabinets that house tools, weapons, clothes, crafts and an endless assortment of other artifacts. The displays are images5RZ03OLLorganised in such a way as to give a sense of life. Manquines are positioned and dressed in day to day postures and all related objects are arranged around them. The result can seem less like a display and more like an artist’s impression. The scope of the museum seems endless and although the displays are relatively compact they’re dense with information and things to see. Among my favorite displays were a section on oral hygiene in African tribes, a discourse on kathakali Theatre and a miniature reconstruction of a traditional Indonesian Village.

‘But that,’ one of my Russian colleges cut in as I was describing the museum to a friend, ‘is not the most interesting part’. And she’s right.

The most interesting part, or at least the most notorious part, is the third floor excibit Monsters. This is where one can find displays lined with countless glass jars containing malformed foetus’ both human and otherwise. It’s like being on set at a mad genius’ deprived laboratory. Two faced babies stare out with four glassy eyes. Decapitated heads and bodies with overgrown tumors and missing limbs float lifelessly. The devil’s backbone abounds. It’s gruesome stuff for sure.

But why? Peter the Great was a student of all walks of life, fueled by an endless curiosity and lust for knowledge. Along his journeys he developed a fascination with biology and was particularly taken with the research of Frederik Ruysch who was an anatomist and artist.

 

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Frederik Ruysch

Ruysch was looking for ways to perfectly preserve dead bodies and found a way to do so by injecting hot, red stained wax into the blood vessels which, when cooled, gave the subject a very lifelike appearance. The eyes were removed and replaced with glass. Later in his career he replaced the wax with a special liquid which kept the bodies flexible rather than ridged and he preserved them in a clear liquid he called liquor balsamicus. Being an artist as well as a scientist Ruysch embellished his works with flowers, patterns, lace and other materials which his daughter helped him with. He’s notorious for using the bodies in his artwork, arranging them and incorporating body parts into his displays.

 

The picture below is an artist’s reproduction of one of his real works in which he positioned the (real) skeletons of babies standing on a bed of (real) organs and surrounded by trees of (real) dried blood vessels.

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These works have at times gained a reputation of being distasteful and macabre, although Ruysch didn’t see them that way, and nor did Peter the Great. In fact, Peter encouraged this kind of reseach into deformities and abnormalities, having all manner of still-born babies delivered from over the world to be added to his collection. In displaying them he sought to discourage superstitious beliefs that such deformities were the product of supernatural or demonic intervention. He wanted to show that these ‘monsters’ we’re just unfortunate creatures, victims of natural biological problems.

photo4jpgNot everything in the collection necessarily adhires to this noble goal but more to the time’s obsession with abnormal bodies as fashion. Proudly displayed are the skeleton and heart of Peter’s favourite giant Nikolay Bourjois. The heart, I kid you not, is as large as my head.

To go into detail about any of the Кунсткамера’s exhibitions would be a fool’s errand because there is simply so much to digest. The museum feels incredibly dense whilst at the same time comfortable and welcoming. The atmosphere is much more relaxed than in other museums such as the Hermitage for example, and although the collection is huge it’s never overwhelming and, thanks to the organisation which guides you through at a good pace, never boring.

From the impressively hung doorman to the cultural oddities and dead babies. I highly recommend Кунсткамера as a day well spent. Only, consider eating a light lunch before venturing towards the third floor…

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Museum of Soviet Archade Machines

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IMG_20171210_144419There’s something special about a game arcade, isn’t there? So many people have fond memories of shoveling coins onto bulky machines to play their favourite game, to beat their high-score or to compete with others, whether it be a friend or a name on the scoreboard.

In American movies the arcade serves as a symbol of childhood, nostalgia and growth. They often stand in as a representation of an innocent or iconic society before the film’s hero embarks on their journey into a more treacherous and cut-throat world.

It’s no surprise that arcades carry such meaning, as at the height of their popularity they balanced comfortably between technical innovation and wholesome entertainment. In many ways they helped define a generation while at the same time propelling the world of gaming into the future.

When I imagine an arcade the prevailing image that comes to me is informed by retro American pictures or those banking on the retro image. The Last Starfighter, Tron and Stranger Things. Perhaps for some it invokes a more modern image of high-tech Tokyo arcades with all their lights, elite customers and pop-culture heroes.IMG_20171210_133003

Whatever the word arcade makes you think of I would be willing to bet that it doesn’t include lines of excited children during the era of the USSR queuing up to play the latest and greatest games.

But this is exactly the image that a visit to the Museum of Soviet Arcade machines, located on Konyushennaya square in St Petersburg, invokes. Here you can find all manner of retro arcade machines from those with super basic design and graphics to the mind boggling complex.

IMG_20171210_141931Wandering through the arcade was like taking a crash course in the history of game design. Among the oldest designs we found machines that run pong and variations of it using 1 bit graphics, and also a phenomenally fun racing game called чемпион-м (Champion-M).

From there we made our way through the roughly assembled catalogue, testing various racing games, a side-scrolling adventure game called Снежная Королева (Snow Queen) which was a bit like a Soviet Zelda, and a whole host of ‘table top games’ like table basketball, hockey and, of course, football.

My favourite machine was the impressive торпида атака (Torpedo attack) which used the technical limitations of the time in such an impressive and inventive way that I couldn’t help be impressed even by today’s standards. Using a blend of lights, cardboard cut outs and sound it manages to be incredibly innovative while beautifully retro. The game is this: You look down into a periscope which in turn aims out at the playing field. In the distance small ships sail out, silhouetted against a backlit sky. Your job is to track them and, when they’re in your sights, pull the trigger. This sends an underwater torpedo, represented by a line of red light, shooting from the front of the machine’s playing field to the back where the ship will explode by dropping out of view as the sky behind it flashes a harsh red. It’s a wonderfully straight forward game made with simple technology but it blends the game concept with hardware in a way that very few games do nowadays. By making you look down through the periscope instead of directly at the field it immerses you in the game’s world and by using three physical dimensions (as opposed to the three digital dimensions of modern games) it gives the game weight and makes the distance between yourself and the targets feel more real.

The best thing about the museum is the way in which the vintage machines are displayed. Like ‘arcade’ the word museum conjures certain images and preconceptions too. On the way I had assumed the museum would be a ‘look but don’t touch’ type affair, but there are no such IMG_20171210_135709rules here; no display cases, cabinets or fences. The machines here aren’t only collected and preserved but they’re kept alive and working. Here, the word museum is used in the loosest of ways. What’s fantastic is that it’s not only geeks and pop-culture historians that visit the museum. While I was there the place was jam packed with kids and young people all playing the games without any care that they came from a different era. This is a place that young people actively come to hang out. There’s even a large screen which, at the time, was showing a bizarre Soviet Tom & Jerry knock off but was looking forward to a Studio Ghibli season.

Something I love about video games is that they seem to capture the essence of the time in which they were made. If you look at a game made 30 years ago in comparison to a recent one, more often than not they’re incomparable. They’re like time in a bottle. The museum of Soviet Arcade Machines doesn’t just take the bottle and stick it on a shelf to be admired, it uncorks it and offers you a drink.

If you ever find yourself in a Russian city with one of these museums and have either an interest in retro games or a group of young people to entertain be sure to check it out.

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Identity Crisis and Star Trek Discovery

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Like many people (and unlike many others) I have been enjoying the first season of Star Trek Discovery which came to an end this week after many months. Personally I’ve enjoyed the ride through an uneven but interesting installment of a franchise I’ve been following on and off basically since birth. I know there’s an entire legion of people, however, who have hated the show with a passion for various reasons, to the extent that I’ve seen it described as the most divisive Star Trek ever.

Much of the discourse has been related to different ideas of what Star Trek ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be. Interestingly, this question of identity reflects many of the show’s own themes in a way that highlights why this incarnation of Trek is (whether successful or not) a fascinating examination of both itself and its audience.

Full spoiler warnings and all that. I’m going to be discussing the entirety of Discovery’s first season, so don’t read on if you’re still to catch it.

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The opening credits hint at the theme of deconstruction and analysis.

Star Trek Discovery is, above all else, about identity. Klingons (whose design has been decried by many fans as not being faithful to their original look or first redesign) roar ‘Remain Klingon’ from the bridge of their ship of the dead, a huge warship adorned with the sarcophagi of their fallen comrades. They despise and fear Star Fleet whom they see as trying to dilute their identity, forcing them to conform and integrate themselves into what they see as a universal socialist empire. Star Fleet officers find themselves unable to agree on the role of their organisation and what actions are or aren’t acceptable during a time of war, often citing protocol and telling each other what is (or isn’t) the way Star Fleet should operate.

This has been a conversation that fans have (whether meaning to or not) been quite glad to get involved in. Much of the criticism against the show has revolved around fans’ expectations and demands of what a Star Trek show should look like. It doesn’t take long in any comment board to find instances of fans claiming that this isn’t ‘their’ Star Trek or that the characters don’t act as Star Fleet officers should, by which they mean they don’t act as characters from previous outings have. These sort of discussions are to be expected with such a well loved franchise and they are something that not only the show-runners expected but have relied on to aid the show’s narrative and to subvert the audience’s expectations of the show.

From the outset Discovery has been using the difference between the Federation, the Klingon Empire and the Terran Empire (as well as the opposing ideologies within each faction) to interrogate the social identity of the characters, us as viewers and of Star Trek itself. If Discovery seemed like it didn’t know what it wanted to be at first, that is because it has been questioning what it could be from the beginning.

Discovery’s story, in a nutshell, asks what happens when an inclusive, expansive society comes up against isolationism and nonconformity. At the same it looks at what happens in the opposite situation; if a person (or species) refuses to allow themselves be integrated (or perhaps assimilated, if you like the comparison) into this sort of conglomeration. In short, according to Discovery, they will come into conflict. Not just with each other but also with themselves, bastardizing and compromising their own ideologies. In the show this results in a war between the two species which is exacerbated by the in-fighting between the 24 Klingon houses. The war spreads engulfing everything in its path and wearing away the moral and ideological mentalities of everyone involved until no one’s sense of identity is left fully in tact.

This theme isn’t only explored in the series’ overall plot but also through each of its characters. The question of fractured ideology and damaged identity can be seen again and again through the many splintered personalities of the show’s cast. Each character represents and explores a different aspect of identity or the lack thereof.

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Identity Perception Crisis – The ‘Disco’ t-shirts were a smooth way to discourage fans from using the acronym ‘STD’.

Michael Burnham doesn’t know who she is. Raised by Vulcans she struggles with the logic-based philosophy she was brought up with and the emotions she’s always been told to suppress. Despite this, she had made her way into the a second-in-command position under the maternal guidance of Captain Philippa Georgiou. When this reality is pulled away from her, through both internal and external miscalculations, her identity is thrown into crisis. Lorca gives her a second chance but the damage has already been done and Michael no longer knows who she is and what her place in society should be anymore. Much of the series is focused on the journey Michael takes in rediscovering herself.

As a complete counterpoint to Michael, Lorca knows very well who he is but it turns out that he is not who he says he is. Considering he is the captain of the Discovery (a role that has typically acted as figurehead in previous Trek outings) this deception colours the entire series until its reveal and has deep implications for Michael as well as every other character. To further explore the theme of hidden, mistaken or withheld identity we also have Empress Georgiou, Captain Philippa’s mirror universe double, who is physically not the person she was despite how much Michael (and the audience) want her to be.

Even the characters who are more secure in their identities are made to question it throughout the series. Saru knows who he is but is constantly challenged by his nature and even has a complete personality flip at one point. Ensign Tilly must act unlike herself in the guise of Captain Killy. Stamets must confront his doppelganger. The entire crew must, in the end, confront Lorca and measure the man he is against the man they thought he was, while weighing the validity of his words that he forged their collective identity, making them the tight-knit group of fighters they are by the end.

All these character interactions are a deeper, multifaceted exploration of the show’s wider question of identity. But of course, the rabbit hole goes even deeper and so does Discovery, honing in further on the fractured personality of one character; Taylor/Voq. This character is the most complex examination of fractured identity in the show but also has another function. Rather than simply provoking more questions it is through this character that Discovery begins searching for an answer.

tumblr_inline_oy1uws4y5L1qebpxc_540Taylor/Voq is a representation of what happens when two opposing ideas or ideologies are jammed together carelessly. Like the larger social and political framework, the result is confused, messy and desperate. Voq tries to claw his way out of Taylor’s body while Taylor himself begs for help understanding who and what he is. The two personalities can’t find a unified state. It’s like trying to forge a Hegelian synthesis from a thesis and antithesis that have been lain on top of each other but not given the chance to interact properly.

It’s what happens when left-wing radicalism meets right. Neither side wants to give way to the other and they’re unable (or unwilling) to see each others’ point of view. The result is chaos and aggression, and before long, both sides, although different in principle, begin to resemble one another. Each ideology begins using the others jargon and the same hateful rhetoric can be seen from each side, just inverted.

An example of this can be taken from Trek fans themselves and the way so many people have reacted to the show. A very vocal contingent of the audience has decried its use of diversity in casting. I’ve heard it said that the inclusion of women of colour and a gay couple as main characters is a result of ‘Social Justice Warrior’ mentality. Others, while acknowledging its positive contribution in this area, have called faul of the series’ darker, grittier and more violent tone in comparison to its predecessors, calling for a return to a more wholesome and faithful vision. Others still will defend it blindly, stating that Trek has always pushed boundaries and only looks blindly optimistic (possibly naively so) in retrospect. There are a lot of rage-filled message boards but not a lot of genuine conversation on the matter, or certainly not on the surface anyway. There definitely seems to be a ‘for or against’ mentality when it comes to the show which doesn’t leave much room for discussion and seems to mirror how a lot of political discourse takes place on the internet currently.

Most of Discovery’s criticism is wrapped up in the questions of what Star Trek ‘is’ or ‘should be’. There seems to be a disconnect between what Trek’s place in the world was and what it is now. This is exacerbated by the fact that when reading reviews of the show form pop culture websites such as io9 or gamesradar+ we seem to be getting a discourse about what the writer thinks the show should be rather than what it actually is. One gets the sense that these reviewers had decided on their opinion of the show long before it even premiered and as such the reviews become much less about the show and more about the reviewers themselves. Very few discussions about the show are able to reach a mutual understanding or even acknowledgment of each others’ opinions. Star Trek Discovery is either brilliant, embodying the true values of Roddenbury’s boundary pushing epic or awful, an insult to the series’ legacy and a product of contemporary television’s obsession with ‘grit’. The truth, of course, is probably somewhere in bstdetween.

Because of all the contrary opinions before the project had even taken off, the showrunners had a lot to consider. Not just regarding the story, design and style of the show, but also its politics, ideals and how it should approach them.

I think Taylor/Voq is what Star Trek Discovery might have looked were it not given the time to explore its place in the world: Retro, nostalgia-laden optimism pasted over an adverse sociopolitical climate and thrown into a more cynical and exploitative televisual landscape. It most likely wouldn’t have worked. But through Taylor/Voq’s suffering the show is able to begin reconciling its vision with its ideology and history. Taylor looks good to begin with, he’s tough, charming and has heart, but as time goes by the cracks start to show. He’s damaged, lost and, worst of all, it turns out he is not what he thought he was, what he wants to be or what he ‘should’ be. It’s a struggle Star Trek Discovery was always going to have.

When Voq’s previous second-in-command, L’rell, finally agrees to work with Star Fleet doctors to help him we begin to see a more real synthesis. Through a mutual love for the confused mess that is Taylor/Voq they put aside their radical ideologies and work together to save whatever identity is left in him. It’s the first real compromise on both sides and a sign that it is possible to forge a relationship between these two identities, both Tayor and Voq as well as Star Fleet and the Klingon Empire. It’s this compromise which will eventually lead to the end of the war which is neither won nor lost, but firmly seated in compromise.

Before they can get to this point though, the crew of the Discovery find themselves in the Mirror Universe during the second half of the series. Here they are forced to see their organisation reflected through a lens of race-hate and opportunism, in the form of the Terran Empire. Unfortunately, the reality they see isn’t so far away from that of their own universe and, in some ways, even closer to our own. The darkness witnessed there is the kind of darkness found in all humanity.

Jasen Issacs said, of the Mirror Universe:

How different are any of us from the Mirror version of ourselves? […] This particular administration in America has brought some of the ugliest parts of human nature out from in the shadows.
[…] What Ted (Sullivan, co-executive producer of the show) did, which I thought was so brilliant, is make [the Mirror Universe] not that far from us. So, it is a world where people are slightly more Darwinian. That whole “Make the Empire glorious again” and not all races are equal. We worked hard on that speech that Lorca gives to make it not that far from the way many people around us think.

In Star Trek Discovery all universes, all beings and all identities are bound together through the Mycelial Network; the roots that hold all of creation together. This shows that all these differing ideologies are intertwined and closer in kind than each would care to admit. It’s important that Lorca’s slogan ‘make the Empire great again’ is not a far cry from the Klingon’s ‘remain Klingon’, and both have very clear real world counterparts. The implication is that our own universe is also part of this network and Discovery hopes, as does all good science fiction, to act as our own mirror universe.

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It is in Discovery’s Mirror Universe, the realm of literal and metaphorical self reflection, that the crew finally come to see themselves for who they are, who they could be and who they must aspire to become. This is all put into words by Saru in the engineering room where he speaks to the crew in what is much less an address and more a meeting. He says speaks about releasing themselves from their confused and fearful past by stating ‘Lorca abused our idealism. But make no mistake, Discovery is no longer Lorca’s, she is ours, and this will be her maiden voyage.’ The scene is a direct reversal of an earlier moment in which Lorca stands in the same room and announces that the ship was ‘not a democracy’.

It’s from the moment of Saru’s speech that the characters start to embody the true ideals of the Federation and we begin to see the original utopian ideals Trek is famous for. It’s no accident that one of the last lines spoken in the mirror universe arc is; ‘That is who Star Fleet is. That is who I am.’

This becomes a mantra of sorts and is constantly repeated throughout the final two episodes and culminates in Michael’s speech in which it becomes a kind of manifesto for the show.

In the end of the Mirror Universe arc the merging and fixing of the show’s fractured identities is reaffirmed as the crew make their way back to their original universe through the Mycelial Network and ‘the clearing in the forest’; a moment of quiet introspection where you can see the world around you and your place in it without being ‘among the trees’, as it were.

Of course, on their return, not all is as it should be and the crew instantly come up against yet another crisis and are forced to stand by their newfound sense of identity even when other member’s of Star Fleet bend under the pressure, allowing themselves to stoop to ever lower depths in desperation. But the crew of the Discovery have leant and grown throughout their journey. They have not only interrogated but embodied the ideals of Star Fleet and it is their confidence in who they must be that paves the way for true change and for the future of not just the show’s world but for the show itself.

After everything has been said and done, Michael puts into words the show’s statement of intent:

No, we will not take shortcuts on the path to righteousness. No, we will not break the rules that protect us from our basest instincts. No, we will not allow desperation to destroy moral authority. I am guilty of all these things. Some say in life there are no second chances. Experience tells me that this is true but we can only look forward. We have to be torchbearers. Casting the light so we may see our path to lasting peace. We will continue exploring, discovering new worlds and civilisations. Yes, that is the United Federation of Planets. Yes, that is Star Fleet. Yes, that is who we are and who we will always be.

Star Trek Discovery is a strange show that takes many risks both in terms of its story and as a show. It relies heavily on a novel-like structure more than many shows I’ve seen that may still be serialised but not novelistic. The show’s first half is much grimmer and more pessimistic than that of its second and the writers ran the risk of alienating much of the audience who didn’t want to see such things from the classic franchise. But the show needed that time to interrogate its own identity, asking what place Star Trek has and what form it should take in a world that seems to be turning its back on Utopian ideals. By testing its characters (and its audience) morally and intellectually it has endeavoured to justify its own existence in our current political, social and televisual climate. Michael’s final speech sums up the series investigation and its discoveries. Now it knows what it is and who its Federation is, the show can start working towards reaching the goal of creating a believable, honest vision of utopia that is relevant to today’s audience.

Ted Sullivan said about Saru’s speech;

We get it. We believe in Star Trek and Starfleet too. We just had to go through this journey of twelve episodes.

 

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Live long and prosper

 

Finding myself through words.

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I realised recently that I love sculpture. This came as a slight surprise because I’ve never really put much thought into the sculpting arts before. I remember being absolutely bowled over by the Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow and I also loved the Rivers of Siberia fountain in Krasnoyarsk. I was less enthusiastic but still impressed with the multiplicity of marble sculptures in Rome and the brass, militaristic statues in Beijing became one of the most interesting aspects of the city for me. Even so, I unconsciously logged all this information away without putting any of it together.

 

Monument to the Conquerors of Space

Monument to the Conquerors of Space

 

The reason I finally realised it, was the same reason I’ve realised so many of my personal tendencies; through my own writing. In particular I was toying with an idea about a city filled with living statues. While daydreaming about this I realised that sculpture has always played a part in my fiction, from my first novel Sketch to my latest, as of yet untitled, project. The statues in my fiction are always impressive and profound, if they’re not alive then they carry some special significance to the plot. In one story a man is slowly transformed into a stone statue after standing still for most of history.

It’s funny how it was only until after I’d written all this that I came to the realisation that I obviously have a strong appreciation for sculpture. Perhaps it comes from the fact that I actually know very little about sculpting, so had never really thought of it as anything but a periphery curiosity. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that this is not the first time I’ve realised something previously unknown about myself through writing fiction.

Through writing over the last five or six years I have discovered so much about myself. I’ve learnt what imagery I find beautiful or scary, what themes intrigue or infuriate me and what ideas have gotten stuck in my subconscious over the years. Through reoccurring thoughts and ideas I’ve discovered fears and concerns lurking in the back of my mind and had the opportunity to explore them. Writing has also helped me to put my social, political and spiritual views on paper and then deconstruct them, argue with myself and even take on the opposite point of view for a while. There’s also the fact that writing a novel, even a completely fictional one requires a nonsensical amount of research into related and unrelated material. I think I’ve learnt more about myself and the world through writing fiction than I have in any other medium or for any other reason.

At George Carling’s funeral Luis CK tells how he received advise for doing stand up from Carling. The advise was never to write the same joke twice, because that way you’re forced to look more deeply inside yourself for content. If the first joke comes from your head then the second comes from your heart, ‘until you get to the balls!’ says Luis CK. I think novel writing is similar to this in the ways that it’s more of a slow job than a sprint. I often find that my feeling of inspiration and excitement in telling a story only carries me so far before I realise there is an ocean of words between myself and the end of the novel. Pushing myself to write past the end of my inspiration forces me to really examine what it is in a story or theme that interests me. What traits in my characters do I find loveable or abhorrent, and if I find it abhorrent then why did I write it?

I’d always recommend that people write, whether it’s a novel, poetry or stream of consciousness, for this reason. It really can help you find and discover yourself. Through this act you might learn what it is you love and hate about yourself. If it’s not writing, then try something else that similarly stimulates you; sculpture for example.

I’m in Poland at the moment, working on a new theatre piece. But when I go back to England next week, I’m inspired to grab some clay and try my hand at making something. I hope I find out something new about myself in the process.

Necessary perspective. Traveling for life.

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A book shop. Possibly the grandest I’ve ever seen.

Last week I paid a visit to Saint Petersburg in Russia, with the intention that me and my girlfriend will be moving there later this year. I think it was the first time I’ve actually visited anywhere before committing to a move. As anyone who’s followed this blog before will know, I’ve already visited Russia a few times now so I more or less know what I’m letting myself in for and certainly won’t be encountering the same kind of culture shock I did last year in Beijing. Even so, it felt important for some reason (perhaps because this time I’m moving more as a life choice rather than because I’m chasing a job) that this year I not make the move cold, as it were.

So I spent a week in the city with my girlfriend. I’d love now to write about the city itself, with its grand, elaborate buildings, winding canals, vastly deep metro tunnels and homey, soviet style cafeterias, but I feel as though I’m unable to. Mostly because, although I noticed them, these are not the things I was paying attention to.

I think it would be fair to say that I’ve been “traveling” (read; taking jobs in obscure places) for three or four years now, and I can’t easily remember the last time I lived in one place for more than a year. I feel that because of this, perhaps unfortunately, the wonder of traveling has worn off slightly for me. Add to this the fact that our visit to Saint Petersburg was informed by the idea that we’ll soon be living there and my perception became a little different. This meant that I viewed the city through a very different lens than I would have done were I just visiting, and to how I think I will when I finally return, whenever my visa clears.

When seeing a new place with the intention of making a life there, your experience of it changes somewhat. Gazing down a wide, tranquil canal at the fantastically named Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood is wonderful, but the English bookshop just there on the left suddenly seems much more interesting. The hustle and bustle of Nevsky Prospect might be exciting but how is the local coffee and breakfast? I started looking out with excitement not for brilliant architecture but for shops selling boardgames and such tit-tat. I admired the many sculptures less for their own artistry but for how they might inspire me over the year or more to come.

I suppose it’s natural that in this circumstance my experience would be different to that of a tourist’s but it almost feels like a shame that my appreciation for such a historic, beautiful place was overshadowed by necessary and sometimes superficial considerations. Having said that, this was the whole reason for our visit and I can happily say that once I fully arrive there in the next month or so, I’m optimistic the city will lend me many much more interesting observations and stories.

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Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood

Into the Siberian Hellscape…

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What do you think of when I ask you about Siberia?

There’s a book I’ve kind of been interested in reading recently. It’s some bizarro thing set in Siberia and if you read the reviews a lot of them start something like this; ‘In the frozen hell that is Siberia…‘ or ‘Set against the background of the Siberian hellscape…’. I’m sure you’ve come across similar things when and if you’ve ever heard anything mentioned about Siberia. I remember showing my girlfriend an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D where they were looking for some sort of secret based hidden in the region (‘if you want to build remote, build Siberia’) and the team was shown struggling through the howling snow to infiltrate the base buried in the permafrost. I guess this view comes from the image of Siberia as it was rather than as it is now. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov’s newfound love Sofya shows her dedication and selflessness by exclaiming ‘I will follow you, I will follow you everywhere. Oh, my God! Oh, how miserable I am! […] I’ll follow you to Siberia!’ The most positive thing Chechov could bring himself to say about it was that ‘even in Siberia there is happiness.’

I’ve known for the past few years that, at some point, I’d be heading to Krasnoyasrk (Красноярск) the third largest city in Siberia. I’ve known this since I started seeing my girlfriend who just so happens to be from there. When I recently asked her if I should buy a new coat before going she answered with a curt ‘of course not’ in a tone that both amuses and terrifies at once. This confused me slightly, as I don’t own a coat at all. How was I to survive the frozen hell without one?

So, imagine my surprise when we land in the tiny Krasnoyarsk airport and continue to drive through the flat, green countryside which, believe it or not, reminded me of home. What surprised me more though were the next few days in which we were greeted by bright blue skies, temperatures up to 30 degrees and some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen in a while.

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My journey began in outskirts of the city itself. At first glance this area was almost the way I expected. Slightly rough around the edges. All cracked concrete and battered cars. Being a somewhat slight Englishman I couldn’t help feel intimidated at first, however once we moved towards the city centre this roughness began to seem almost charming. Lovely wooden buildings which range from quaint to impressive line the streets and wherever you go you can find wonderful bronze statues, all representing artists or individuals of particular importance to the city. There’s a sense of rugged pride to be found here.

IMG_20170731_164300I remember that during my trip to Moscow several years ago the thing I was the most impressed with were the sculptures and the same can be said for Krasnoyarsk, although the wooden houses are a close second here. In particular there is one sculpture that really set my imagination on fire. Called the ‘Rivers of Siberia’ it portrays the main river, Enisei (Енисей), which flows through the city. Enisei is portrayed as a huge, muscular man behind whom is Angara (Ангара), another (female) river. In legend there is a tragic love story between Enisei and Angara. On both sides of the sculpture stand six more rivers, each portrayed IMG_20170731_150535as gorgeous, ethereal Siberian women, which flow into Enisei. It’s a wonderful piece that, even though the water feature wasn’t working, set my mind racing. What’s better is that you can turn around and see Enisei right there in front of you, in all his glory. And he is glorious. A massive body of water which flows right through the city, big enough to house a few small islands, one of which has become a popular meeting place for families and young people. Here, at this time of year, people meet to skate, bike and walk among the comically tame wild gophers. It’s not technically a huge city park, but that is what it felt like.

In one place on the island there is a grand tree with an overhanging branch. Hanging from the branch is a sign that reads Лукоморье (Lukomorye: Blue Bay). It refers to the name of a fictional land in Russian folklore which Pushkin used in one of his fairytales. This tree is referencing a particular passage from his poem Ruslan and Ludmila.

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There’s a green oak-tree by the shores
Of the blue bay; on a gold chain,
The cat, learned in the fable stories,
Walks round the tree in ceaseless strain:
Moves to the right – a song it groans,
Moves to the left – it tells a tale.

I was also taken to visit my girlfriend’s family Dacha (дача). IMG_20170804_163858

A Dacha is basically a plot of land on which the family grows vegetables. There are also houses on the Dachas, some of which are like modern homes and others glorified sheds. On my girlfriend’s land there is a small wooden shack hand built by her great grand father during the Soviet era.

So that’s the city, now into the hellscape. Krasnoyarsk is one of those cities where an hour bus ride can take you right out into the surrounding nature. During our trip we went to visit a nature park which is home to Stolby (Столбы), large rock pillars that range from being big to absolutely huge. To put into perspective; we climbed up one of the more or less averagely sized ones to eat lunch and found ourselves looking down at the tops of the forest trees. They’re quite magnificent and the fact you can climb them without anyone shouting rules at you feels like a real adventure. Whilst up there, it felt as though we were on top of the world. Siberian forests seem to stretch on for eternity and standing on that rock, looking into the green-clad distance it’s impossible to grasp the scale of the place, especially for a Brit, whose entire county would fit into Siberia multiple times. We spent hours walking through the forest, carefree despite roadside signs informing us (only in Russian of course) what to do if we come across a bear. Fortunately, but also somehow disappointingly, we didn’t see any bears but there are also chipmunks who, like the gophers, are surprisingly tame, so that sort of makes up for it.IMG_20170803_160227

But Krasnoyarsk doesn’t only have trees, it also has water, and a lot of it. If you follow Enisei you’ll travel through the countryside and to a huge dam and hydroelectric station which apparently, a local told me, would drown the entire region in 15 minutes were it to stop functioning. Luckily it does function and by doing so it stops the river from freezing during winter and results in some bitterly cold, refreshingly clean tap water. On the other side of the dam is what I heard referred to as the ‘Krasnoyarsk sea’. A huge artificial lake (one of the largest in the world) surrounded by hills and mountains. Needless to say it more than earns its name.IMG_20170801_205701

I just spent a week in Krasnoyarsk and I could continue writing for hours. It’s a city that seems to keep on giving. There is beautiful and interesting architecture, a deep sense of history, mountains, lakes, trees, gophers and chipmunks. At once it’s industrial and rural, rough and elegant, harsh and welcoming. Throughout my entire time there I kept thinking it was like a fairy tale. Not that the city itself is particularly fairy tale like, but that there are so many elements to it that could be; the old wooden houses felt as if they had history laced into the grain; the Stolby looked like giant hands reaching up from the mountain when viewed from the city; the Rivers of Siberia and all the other brass sculptures dotted around the place seemed to have secret lives of their own.

It’s a place that has left me wanting more which is fortunate because at some point we will be venturing back so that I can experience the Siberian winter, which some of the locals claim is not actually that cold… Honestly, I’m not sure my delicate English body will agree.

One thing is for sure, I found it to be a tremendously inspiring city. After spending a year in Beijing which I have not, despite its many other merits, found an inspirational place I am returning from Krasnoyarsk, my mind racing and an outline forming for a new novel.

From Shuangjing to Mudanyuan

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I’m standing outside the metro station, in a queue of fifty or sixty people, waiting for the metal grate to scrape open, admitting the next group of us.

I live in Shuangjing (双井) which is in the South East of Beijing (北京市) and work in Mudanyuan (牡丹园) in the North West.

Each morning I follow the same routine: Join the queue, wait and then scramble towards the train doors. Usually it takes two or three trains before I can get on.

While I wait at the station doors I watch the train come in, my early-morning mind compiling a list of things I need to get done that day.

The train doors line up with the station’s and both open together. No one exits the train. I’m looking at a solid wall of flesh and cloth. Someone behind me scrambles forward and presses themselves into the wall, bumping and jostling so the doors might just be able to close. I watch as the person’s identity vanishes in front of me, as they are moulded and absorbed into the wall.

It’s just past eight, I’m not in such a hurry. I’ll wait. The train pulls away.

A few trains later it’s coming up to eight twenty and I can’t wait any longer.

The doors open, the wall stands strong and I tentatively take a step towards it. As if they’ve been waiting for my first step the queue behind me makes its move too. I am pressed from behind into the wall and I can’t concentrate any more. The world blurs into a kind of fleshy brown and I’m knocked and squeezed on all sides. I imagine it’s like the opposite of being born. Soon I come to a stop, one foot on the floor, my body off balance. The doors shut and we move on.

I can’t move, and I have a problem. The next stop is Guomao (国贸), a major transfer station. I am pinned somewhere between the door and the middle of the train entrance. Around me people are pushing and sliding past one another. I feel hands, and stomachs and backs press against me. My nose and mouth are pressed into a woman’s hair, I feel someone much taller than I looming behind me.

We arrive at Guomao and the door opens. I’m lucky. I’ve managed to grab hold of a metal bar in the centre of the entrance. People flood out past me, like liquid fleeing an overturned bottle. I’m caught in the flow and hold on for dear life. Shoulders and arms bang into me as people barge past as if I am an obstacle that can only be overcome by force. My feet are snatched off the ground and I feel like I’m being pulled from a starship’s airlock.

The flow abates and I find my feet. New passengers embark. But I’m okay now, able to push myself into the aisle where I’ll be a safe distance from the doors.

Here I settle in for the rest of the journey, about forty minutes or so.

I feel pressure all around me. Smell the scent of sweat and perfume and breath. I find my mind wandering and I can’t seem to focus on what I’m doing there and even who I am seems hazy and unsure. I feel a rhythmic pulsing in my mind and all thought seems to fall away. We are breathing together, creating great fleshy waves that press against the sides of the train. My body dissolves and I am soaked into the whole. We are a single organism, pulsating and rippling together. Falling, swirling and morphing. Settling into the long tube-like shape of the carriage. A great, stinking worm with a thousand mouths, all groaning and grunting and leaking hot, coffee and cigarette scented breath into the recycled air.

We are blood, clogged and clotted in one of the city’s grubby arteries.

Each time the doors open some of the lumpy, sick blood spills out into other parts of the body.

Slowly, as my station approaches the carriage thins out and I’m able to move independently again. When I disembark the train I feel, at first, a kind of loss. Like I’ve just let go of something. I feel slightly dazed, unaware of where I am and what I’m doing. But soon, sense and thought come back to me and I remember.

I am Jack Owen. I’m on my way to work. I live in the city but I am not a part of it. I am a single entity again, with my own life and experience.

I let go of a breath I’ve been holding for god-knows-how-long. Relief floods over me as I exit the station into air that I can’t call fresh, but is at least more spread out than that of the train.

The experience is vanishing from my mind and will soon be all but forgotten. In those last fleeting moments of consciousness I thank life itself that I’m off that train but dread, albeit with an odd sense of longing, tomorrow’s journey, when the cycle will repeat itself.