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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.