A note on ghosts and exodus

When I was planning this blogging project, I wanted to include a creative element that went beyond straightforward psychogeographical ‘reports’ of walks. Inspired by Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life (p.206), where he explores creative representations that ‘take root’ in landscape, I decided I wanted to use my limited (but enthusiastic!) songwriting skills to offer a more poetic rendering of the urban environment. Some reasons for this (amongst others) were: to practice (and open to contestation) the making and/or staining of landscape, to offer a more ‘layered’ representation of place that goes beyond the sometimes ‘blunt instrument’ of explanatory speech, and to open a line of experimentation with the desires attached to place. The result will be a series of videos – like the one in my previous post – that overlay a song onto a walk, or part of a walk, that I’ve done.

However, with this initial video at least, I feel the need to write a little more about it rather than publish it with only the lyrics for comment. The lyrics for the song were originally a response to my first post on this site; a psychogeographic report of a walk I did around and between Miller St and Queen St. Anticipating, on that walk, a sense of transition from a person I was into a ‘freer’ version of myself, I was confronted instead with a sense of still carrying with me some of the baggage of my younger self, but also the baggage of a wider landscape of Scottish Presbyterianism. The imagery in the lyrics conjure up the Exodus story – captured also in the song’s title ‘Not Consumed’, part of the Church of Scotland’s (the Church in which I was raised) motto – but twist it a little, suggesting an eternity traipsing the desert, rerouted always away from the promised land by avoiding fissures in the landscape and the ghosts that float through them. 

I filmed the video after being shocked, on my initial walk, by just how close the first place I lived in Glasgow, on Miller St, was to a set of key sites that evidence Glasgow’s entanglement in the transatlantic slave trade. The Tobacco Merchant’s House, on the edge of the Merchant City, is more-or-less directly opposite the Miller St entrance to my old student halls; but then, why wouldn’t it be? When I first moved to Glasgow I was ignorant of the horrific resonances of the landscape in which I lived. I’m well aware now, but I was still surprised on my walk; going from feeling – albeit buffered by privilege – some of the heaviness of the Merchant City’s landscape to all of a sudden, being right where I used to live, somewhere with such positive personal connotations. It was a jarring juxtaposition; I thought there was more of a gap between my more positive, subjective topology of the city and the city’s darker, insistent stratigraphy. It was a palpable reminder of the immanence of the past and of injustice; a wyrd break in the experience of the urban environment. I re-walked my walk through the Merchant City and captured some footage because it felt important to record the affective disjuncture caused by the landscape I’d practically lived on top of – that many in Glasgow continue to live on top of – when exposed to new information and fresh attention. 

When overlaying the song on the video footage, another ‘Exodus resonance’ emerged. Famously, the Exodus narrative infuses many of the Black Spiritual songs of the southern US; songs like “Go Down Moses” and “Didn’t Ol’ Pharaoh Get Lost”. Although the song I wrote about Miller St and Queen St reflects the sense of unfreedom I felt as I traversed those streets – related to my own religious baggage – when it is overlaid on footage of the Merchant City, with it’s signs for ‘Virginia Place’, ‘Virginia Court, and ‘Tobacco Exchange’, a much more serious sense of unfreedom and need for Exodus begins to resonate through the song’s lyrics. The Merchant City is part of a broader landscape that instigated the need for millions of enslaved people to transmute the ‘Promised Land’ imagery of the Exodus story – and what they interpreted as its condemnation of slavery – into song. The song I’ve written then, when overlaid on this video footage, becomes a warning to all of us who engage with this part of Glasgow. In what ways will Glasgow’s colonial and slave-dealing past continue to desertify people’s lives if not faced? What and who was and/or will be consumed or not? Whether there will ever be something approximating a promised land remains to be seen, but if it is to be even partially experienced, it must be conceived as constructed – an open-ended, emergent way of being ‘arrived at’ – and it will only be the ghosts reaching through the gaps in the landscape (and those that know the gaps and ghosts well) that will be able to sketch its architecture.

Although I did not manage to experience it before it ended, I must acknowledge Adura Onashile’s augmented reality experience Ghosts with reference to this post. Onashile created Ghosts for the National Theatre of Scotland which – as I have read elsewhere – visually overlays globe-spanning historical geographies of slavery onto the Merchant City. As Onashile says in this youtube video, recognising our past can alter how we feel in place. I hope this post and the music-video it discusses contribute something to the emotional changes Onashile hopes to layer onto Glasgow’s landscape. Not to take away any love for the city – Concrete Bodach is founded significantly on that love – but to see Glasgow more potently as a place to engage with injustice from (folding together present, past, local, and trans-spatial considerations), inspired by our love of place to engage and alter what has made and continues to make Glasgow. In this respect – and with reference to the content of this post – I would point people towards Flag Up Scotland Jamaica, an organisation highlighting the connections between Glasgow, Scotland, and their colonial engagements in Jamaica. 

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