Urban novelties: How Bristol itself became a short story

<em>These Pages Fall Like Ash</em> turned a city into a fantasy novel, making Sarah Ditum see her home with new eyes.

The idea of wandering, experiencing, discovering a city is lost to a time before smartphones. Now, you're very likely carry on your person a computer capable of mapping your route from point to point so you never get lost, and once you get there, connecting you to somebody you already know. Wherever you go, your world can can be constrained to the scale of the five-inch screen in your pocket.

Storytelling experiment These Pages Fall Like Ash is billed as a reinvention of the paper book in a digital era, and it is. The fragmented episodes of the story (a collaboration between academic Tom Abba, arts collective Circumstance, and fantasy novelists Neil Gaiman and Nick Harkaway) are delivered as downloads from Raspberry Pi terminals dotted around the city of Bristol. To help you interpret the world you gradually uncover, the price of the ticket also includes a wood-bound notebook containing a glossary, some scraps of supporting narrative and a cryptic list of the locations where each chapter can be found.

The story itself is a collaboration between these media, the paper and the pixels. The notebook is a beautiful object – the teasing use of revelatory cutouts and concealing blocks of black censor's ink remind me of BS Johnson's Albert Angelo. But over the course of the experience (I think experience is the right word for These Pages Fall Like Ash), it is overshadowed by an even more impressive physical artefact: the city itself.

The story itself is a subtle, watery reflection of the real environment – and in Bristol's case, that means drawing heavily on its geography as a port and river city. The story suggests a time of flood in the future, when the walkways you move across will be drowned and the urban landmarks reinterpreted to suit the needs of an odd and alien culture. These Pages Fall Like Ash makes it necessary to attend to the streets you walk through, if only because what you are invited to imagine is so starkly different.

You see the river and the ghost signs, the ancient pubs and the not-so-ancient university buildings more sharply as you make the effort to see something else entirely in their place. Early on, it becomes clear that the fiction involves two cities sharing the same location, with lesions between them that allow some kind of exchange between the characters; and then you realise that you and every other participant in Pages Fall is helping to shape the outcome of the story.

This shared experience has the strange effect of creating a small, transient community in the city. People walk around with their faces pressed to their portable screens as ever, but for once, we are all peering into the same world rather than a magnified version of our own psyche. At waypoints of the story, we gather and exchange hints of what is to come and where to go next, taking pleasure in sharing the hidden places of Pages.

The accomplishment isn't quite perfect. Not every terminal was working or accessible when I took my tour, and the whole narrative was more than my flaky iPhone battery could take in one charge. Even with a longer lasting device, this would be a work of more than one day – and perhaps rightly so, because the episodic structure makes it a story to be lived in through the retracing of familiar streets, rather than one to be devoured at pace. These Pages Fall Like Ash works in the way works of the imagination should, though: it is something to get lost in, even if you think you know the terrain.

These Pages Fall Like Ash is now over, but the creators have plans for similar events in other cities.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle