23 October 2015

The Black Hut

Walking the border near Derry/Londonderry I passed the site of the Black Hut, a tiny shop which is now gone but plays a big role in this area’s memory. The hut was just over the border in the south. It is the focus point of many tales archived in community history projects and found in newspaper’s folksy columns. Nostalgic retellings have transformed and expanded the Black Hut until one would think it was as deep as a cave and full of magical treasures. In reality it was a one-room general shop selling vegetables, cigarettes, tins of treacle, flour, sweets and lemonade. Its golden age was the Second World War. There was rationing in the north but many basics could still be purchased in the south — “They had tons of butter in there,” recalls one interviewee.

There were a few different Black Huts over the years but, as far as I know, they were all on the Altaghaderry Road, under Holy Well Hill.

Many boys and girls had their first cigarette at the Black Hut, along with cross-border romances and, at the customs post on the way back, adventures in criminality. All the Black Hut recollections I have read are from childhood, which might explain how a shack has taken on a sheen of wondrousness. It makes sense, of course, to have lived into our era, the era of the oral history project, a person must have been very young during the Second World War. But I think there is another reason: most of the Black Hut’s customers were children. The Black Hut was a long hike from the terraced streets Derry/Londonederry. It was time-rich children who made the trip most. It was true of my own childhood, faced with the empty expanse of a sunny Saturday afternoon, we needed only slight excuses to take a hour’s walk, a dozen lemon drops might be enough. The Black Hut was the destination of a thousand childhood rambles. There was adventure to be had too, risks that were primed for kids. Customs officers, nicknamed Water Rats, patrolled the roads. Parents sent their children to buy things at the Black Hut because they would not be stopped and searched by officers the way an adult might. Children could also stay off the roads, skipping across the fields with a naturalistic ease that adults couldn’t quite muster.

A few years ago a group called GOAL, Gaining Opportunities to Address Legacies, organised a reminiscence walk from Derry to the site of the Black Hut and have published a pamphlet about it.

2 September 2015

Border Journal: Vehicle Graveyard

Not long after leaving Lough Melvin, Just passed the point where the border turns to go around Co. Donegal I find a whole graveyard of vehicles. There is a school bus, a tipper truck and several cars. They are sat side by side but could not be called parked. Dull pallor, flat tyres and popped seams; they have not moved in years. There is a fire engine, a vintage ford, a 1950s Thames to be exact, with big rounded wheel guards. It still has its ladder on its back. These vehicles are not so much dumped as stored away here on the border.

Someone probably thought they come in useful some day, for parts at least. But the days turned into years and here they still are, crumbling away, a retirement home that nobody visits. Motorcycle skeletons are jumbled together on the ground. The seats have rotted away and exposed the springs. I recognise the Hondas, these used to be popular among farmers. They were basic machines with a small puttering motor but certain elegance around their shapely speedometer, handlebars and the small rearview mirror on the end of thin chrome arms. You don’t see them on the roads any more. I seem to have found the hidden graveyard where they ended up. Tall dandelions are pushing up through their spokes and ribs.

5 August 2015

Border Guards

The border guards are the cows. They are stoic, standing with their minds geared-down, like security staff of an unvisited museum. But they can have curiosity too. More than once I am awoken at dawn by a herd pressed in around my tent. They rub their spluttery lips against the sides, great snorts and nostril blasts blowing convex shapes into the material. Once, just before waking, I dream I am in bed with a cow.

Lydia Davis wrote an entire, although very short, book about three cows that lived in a field near her home. It is a wonderful study, coming at her neighbours from multiple angles until, somewhere between the paragraphs, the essence of cattle is expressed; the cowishness of cows. This seems to be best observed by looking at them in herds, individual cows just seem incomplete. They are a group form of life, a lone cow is an irrelevance, like a single ant. Davis notes this essence too, hovering between the individual and the group, but breaks up the trio near her house into constitute parts with the application of time and a steady gaze. “They are nearly the same size, and yet one is the largest, one the middle-sized, and one the smallest.”

Walking the border, ever onwards, I never encounter the same cows twice, yet every cow is essentially the same cow. It seems better to think of them as hills or gates or clouds, replicated to one pattern. Endless but predictable, the border’s bovine furniture.

4 August 2015

New Map: Detail

I am putting together a new border map. Here's a snippet. The map contains some of the elements of The Map of Watchful Architecture and much more besides.

1 June 2015

Mapping Alternative Ulster: Strabane

The Mapping Alternative Ulster exhibition is currently running in the Alley Arts Centre, Strabane. A few new maps have been added since the run in Belfast, including a wonderful map of an imagined metro system for Omagh. 'Omagh Metro System' is showing with the work of about a dozen other artist/cartographers, all of whom use maps to promote different ways of looking at where we live.

The map is by Benny Sweeney. Click here for his website.

For more info about the show see; www.mappingalternativeulster.net.

6 May 2015

Border Journal: Wrecks

I pass two cars abandoned in a ditch and burnt out. The burning, which might have been two or three years ago, caused all their paint to peel off. Now matt steel and brown rust, the wrecks display the same muted pallet as their surroundings. The seats are covered in moss and the springs have erupted.

15 April 2015

New Map, New Symbols

I am working on a new border map. It will chart some defensive structures, as I have done with a previous map, but includes other border elements too. The key is expanding as I widen my notion of how we attempt to claim and control space.

I have no name for the new map yet.

26 March 2015

Border Journal: Upland

Upland now. Semi-feral sheep amble along fences trailing woolly dreadlocks. I find a border connection at the bottom of a soggy field, a plank bridge going over a ditch. A donkey stands guarding it. I follow lanes, keeping an eye on the border to my right or left.

12 February 2015

Border Journal: After Dark

In this border field tonight, sitting outside my tent, I felt a presence. I don’t mean in a spiritual way. It was a tangible energy, hovering somewhere between warmth and a meaty gravity. I felt it on my skin. I couldn't see anything but the stars and black silhouettes of the trees around the field. Then I heard the distinct splutter of a horse. I stood as the horse approached; it was as black as the night, two stars for eyes.

22 January 2015

Border Journal: Kiltyclogher

The border passes through a small lake. Dusk, I make camp by the shore and walk into the nearest village. Tonight Kiltyclogher’s three streets are deserted and dark. No cars pass. The village is hushed. There is a summer heaviness in the air, perhaps all the pollen from the fields all around. I sense domestic comfort behind closed doors, yellow light spills from windows, the flicker from a television. Suddenly lonesome, I peer in the window of a pub. I see a constellation of stars, gleams from bottles, glasses and mirrors. It’s got that warm pub look about it, all browns and golds, lengths of polished brass. But it is Monday, the wrong end of the week. A solitary man is sitting at the bar and looking into his whiskey. There is no one else to be seen, not even staff. I return to my campsite, take my boots off and dip my feet in the lake.