Friday, 25 September 2015

Ratting, Dwelling, Thinking -or- Being and the Art of Motorcycle Ratting

Disclaimer - I am not a biker. I do not own a bike, I cannot ride a bike. I struggle on a pushbike. These are the ill-informed views of an outsider looking in.

Five months ago I was approached by a group of motorcycle enthusiasts, the N.I.Rats, to make a documentary about them. This was about the height of the brief. There was no clear agenda in the form of a point that needed to be made, or clear arc in terms of a storyline to be relayed; just a passion and energy for what it was they were interested in - Ratbikes. On the face of it a strange fit for an architect and PhD student, but as things progressed the ideas coalesced and began to work together - something it might become easy to over-intellectualise (I'll be doing that shortly), but probably simply deriving from a group of passionate people who decide to do something together and who have clear ideas for how they believe things should and could be, but are non-fundamentalist in their approaches. The film rolled onwards, eventually becoming the 40 minute long piece 'Rat's Tales' which premiered at Culture Night Belfast, 2015, and will continue to develop for at least the next year.
Now for the clumsy over-intellectualising.

The set of theories I have been working with are beginning to point towards an explanation of how we reach an understanding of the raw phenomena received by our senses, suggesting that we never have any access to either 'reality' or 'truth,' but only ever our own interpretations and viewpoints which we chose to adopt as 'reality' and 'truth.' However, while always being attracted to Martin Heidegger's theory of Dwelling from which these ideas (and the title of this post) derive, I have always been skeptical of social constructionism, which these ideas can quite easily develop into. This is when we can move forward into Mythogeography.
Fonzy's 'Tramp Pot'
Phil Smith's set of theories allows us to understand that, when we are constructing our own reality we are making use of an all too easily-accessible set of myths, ready-made explanations and interpretations for phenomena - 'scripts' for how to act, interact and dwell when we perceive them. This is a game which the post-modernists became aware of, but where they give the playing of these games a privileged position, Mythogeography removes it by showing how we are all unavoidably doing it, all the time. To be aware of this isn't enough - to be aware of when it is appropriate to take part or to deviate from these social scripts is the real trick.
Bop's 'Spawn of Satan'
The culture of Ratbikes serves as an illustration of these ideas. Initially, Ratbikes appear to be an aesthetic choice. There is a distinct post-industrial look to many of the bikes, as illustrated by the link to the Mad Max film series - rusted machines of urban warfare, rife with militaristic machismo and the cliched 'heavy-metal thunder' mythology of Easyrider and Steppenwolf. When interrogated, however, Ratbikes emerge as a practical necessity for many Ratters - the need to keep the thing running in order to get from A to B, the basis of Heidegger's notion of building in order to successfully dwell, as Aaron and Tom explain in the film.

  • AARON "A true Ratbike is years upon years of fixing absolutely everything possible with nothing that fits, making..."
  • TOM "...making it work..."
  • AARON "Aye, making it work. If one hammer doesn't work, get a bigger hammer. You know, if a spanner doesn't work, cut it. Do whatever you want to it..."
  • TOM "...use whatever parts you can find. Cut, weld, staple, bolt..."
  • AARON "That's a tre Rat like..."
It is clear that initially this isn't a choice at all. Eugene explains "I think everybody who was a real biker had a Ratbike at some stage, whether they knew it or not. Everybody cobbled together what they could. We didn't always have money," something which is made clear by the story, as related by Gareth 'Eazyrider' Tuff, of Fonzy's first Ratbike. "He ended up with his 400 bandit. It never ran right. It was held together with tape, cable ties...I can't remember how many times it broke down. But I think that's where part of it started for Afonso, was keeping that bike alive."

The aesthetic of the Rat, therefore, is the result of the creative problem-solving of it's owner who is unable to rely on the conventional means of motorcycle maintenance. The act of painting the bike matte-black, initially intended to cover up the fact that the vehicle has been ratted, has now become subverted to be a source of pride - a way of drawing attention to the fact that it is a Ratbike. This becomes the point of departure when the elemental act of building and dwelling begins to intermingle with the mythology of the Ratbike.
Bop's 'Spawn of Satan'
There are, very broadly speaking, three dominating Ratbike mythologies. The first, and perhaps original, is the militaristic survival Rat - deriving largely from the military vehicles of the second world war. The military vehicle would be tough, rugged, abused and, subsequently, bodged and cludged in-the-field and on-the-move to keep running. The owners of such bikes relied on them to keep them alive, and probably, as Eugene suggests, didn't think of them as Rats. There is a romantic truth about these bikes - potential 'pure rats' - the spirit of which Ratbike owners seek, and do so by augmenting their vehicles with Iron Crosses, guns, bullets, knives, saddle bags and even bullet-holes. Secondly, there is the angry-hippy Rat, inspired largely from the distortion of 1960s Americana, Ratfink hotrod and hippy culture which occurred in the early 1970s and is probably typified by the notorious involvement of the Hell's Angels with Woodstock '70, the perceived death of the Summer of Love. These are aestheticised vehicles, with a vicious and sardonic sense of humour, often daubed with politicised slogans and icons, ranging from the crudely drawn to the elaborate professional paint-job - subversive, witty and mean. Finally, we have the fantasy Rat, highly aestheticised apocalyptic vehicles inspired largely by the Mad Max franchise. These can be viewed as a subtle blend of the previous two, a fantasied version of the 'true' survivalist Rat, with the humour of the angry-hippy less the cynicism.
Eugene's 'Blitzkrieg'
These broad mythologies come complete with their own set of iconographic modes-of-Ratting. As the Ratter spirals gradually away from the 'true' rat (as, for example, they learn more about keeping bikes running from others or improve their financial position making Ratting less necessity and more choice) they make a complex set of decisions, largely reflexive and automatic - driven not only by the mythologies but also that original 'pure' practicality of keeping the thing running. So when, for example, Eugene suggests that everything on his Blitzkrieg trike has a use, it most certainly does, but the gearstick does not necessarily need to be made out of a .45 pistol, nor the pedals drilled-out rubber bullets. The decision has been made to aestheticise the trike as a militaristic survival rat. The mythological script is there and it is followed automatically.
Bop's 'Spawn of Satan'
That being said, this may sound like an accusation of lack of imagination. On the contrary, the bed of Ratting culture, that idea of keeping the thing running at every cost besides the financial, ensures that creativity is at it's very root. Eugene's trike is seen as a successful Rat because it adheres to the script, playing the game so-to-speak, but does so in a surprising and novel way. There is no other vehicle like Blitzkrieg, it is the unique product of Eugene's unique set of decisions, both practical and aesthetic, which will never reflexively occur again.
Eugene's 'Blitzkrieg'
Lastly, we come to the idea of the Ratbike as a piece of equipment, but not, like other things which help us achieve our projects and goals throughout the day, a static object. The Ratbike adapts and evolves as it's user's needs change. This, as with the 'pure' Ratbikes born out of extreme situations or financial constraints, may be strictly practical. If the bike breaks down, it needs to be physically changed in order to get it running. But, again as we move towards aesthetics, the Ratter's relationship with or understanding of the mythology might slip - their politics or tastes may change and with them, the bike. The equipment is therefore an extension, not only of the body, but the personality - or rather an idealised and mythologised version - of the Ratter, things constantly in flux and never fixed.

The dualist nature of body and mind collapse in the realisation of the Ratbike - a singular object of necessity and political action.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Sailortown walking tour - European Heritage Open Days 2015

The following are notes and slides developed for a walking tour of the Sailortown area of Belfast, delivered at 10am, 12/09/2015, as part of the European Heritage Open Days in conjunction with PLACE, the Northern Ireland centre for the built environment.

Start - Harbour Commissioners

Slide 1 - This is a tour of Belfast’s lost quarter, commonly referred to as ‘Sailortown,’ a different and difficult sort of tour in that Sailortown has all but disappeared. I have chosen not to discuss Sailortown as an historical artefact, but rather use it as a case study of urban planning throughout the final half of the 20th century. As such, much of what I have to say about Sailortown and it’s unfortunate fate from the late 1960s onwards is based on hearsay, speculation and a small kernel of provable data, most of which is open to debate. As such, I don’t mind anyone contributing their views and opinions on what may have transpired here, down by the docks. Initially we’re just going to walk from this end of Sailortown to the other, through some of the different conditions you find in the area, and then once we’re on the other side we’ll stop and I’ll explain a little bit about what the area used to be like and what happened to it.

Stop 1 - Whitla Street

Slide 2 - Here we are now at the northern-most boundary of Sailortown, Whitla Street. The exact boundaries of the area are blurred at best, but it it commonly agreed that this is definitely where it ends on this side. A poem by Sailortown resident Tommy O’Hara begins by saying “From Whitla Street to God knows where, now there’s an argument right there.” It is generally agreed that Henry Street was the southern boundary and Nelson Street was the western boundary, but people claim to be from Sailortown as far down as Corporation Square where we started, and there is an argument that York Street formed part of Sailortown, although here the age old ‘Irish Problem’ enters into things, with Sailortown largely being regarded as a Catholic area and York Street being Protestant.

Up to the 1960s this area was home to around 5000 people, and was called Sailortown obviously for it’s proximity to the docks. As such it was an extremely cosmopolitain area, with foreign sailors constantly coming and going, and potentially staying in the area for weeks or months at a time. Additionally, many of the locals were sailors themselves, individuals who had travelled the world and been welcomed in foreign ports, experiences which potentially gave them a different attitude to residents of other quarters of the city; an outlooking quarter which physically and socially connected Belfast to the rest of the world.

Notable residents include Rinty Monaghan, the boxer whose statue you can now see down beside the Ulster University on York St; Big Jim Larkin, the Irish trade union leader who lived and worked here in his early days, comedian Frank Carson; and Buck Alec, the policeman, loyalist paramilitary and street fighter lived here, and could be seen walking his pet lion through the streets.

But when recounting a history of a place which is now gone it is easy to get lost in the romantic nostalgia of what it was and could have been. The area was very poor and existed on the outskirts of an incredibly busy industrial port, meaning the air quality would have been pretty poor. The housing, before it was demolished, was referred to as Victorian slum housing in a report at the time, very cramped and lacking amenities - a complaint which was made about all the inner-city housing in Belfast in the pre-war years, including the lower Shankill, Falls road, and inner East Belfast - all areas, coincidentally, which could be said to have been detrimentally affected by redevelopment, something we will talk more about at our next stop.

Stop 2 - Original houses/Car park

Slide 3 - Regardless of where exactly Sailortown was, the contemporary area as I see it can be largely divided into three distinct parts with distinct feelings, which hopefully you detected on our walk here. You have this central area which is the nucleus of Sailortown as it used to be. It is dilapidated and a little bit sorry for itself, but retains a spark of authentic community feeling which is unfortunately being eroded. Then you have Clarendon Dock, which is now a far cry from what it would have been as an operational graving dock, used for repairing and maintaining the boats which serviced the dock. It could now be referred to as a sleek, 21st century commercial estate, whose employees all live outside the area. While it’s not officially part of Sailortown, it’s development is having a massive affect on the area as a whole and is worlds apart in atmosphere, financial investment and attitude to the rest of the area. Finally you have the area between Sailortown and York Street, which is a mess of roads, motorway on slips, carriageways and these derelict residual spaces rendered largely useless by the infrastructure.

So what exactly happened between this map (1920) and this map (2008)? As the second world war was drawing to a close it was accepted that, as I suggested before, Belfast’s inner-city housing was deemed largely inadequate and a report and corresponding masterplan was devised which was unfortunately never enacted. It suggested a series of grand avenues with corresponding squares, and also proposed a road bridge in the location of the current flyover, but it would have been at grade rather than the raised motorway we currently have. While the masterplan was never adopted, the identification of the housing crisis was taken seriously and, along with the construction of suburban housing estates like Cregagh estate, a process of what was referred to as ‘slum clearance’ began towards the end go the ‘50s.

Slide 4 - By the early 60s, you had the rise of Prime Minister Terrence O’Neill, who was exceptionally progressive and liberal compared to his predecessors, and with him you had a considerable amount of progressive liberal civil servants, people like Ronald Green and John Oliver, and they were keen on pushing through all kinds of reforms including a brave new Modernist masterplan for Belfast. They brought in an expert architect-planner from Edinburgh called Robert Matthew and he drafted what is now referred to as the ‘Matthew Plan.’ The plan proposed to limit the outward expansion of Belfast and create these satellite towns where, theoretically, people would live and commute to Belfast to work on newly constructed roads infrastructure. Matthew himself did not go into a great amount of details on the roads, but you can see this ominous dotted line around the centre of the city, implying what was to be proposed in the future.

Slide 5 - By 1967 elements of the Matthew plan were being implemented, including the construction of Craigavon; but the element which had the biggest bearing on Sailortown was, of course, the road plans. Travers Morgan prepared the report for what was known as the Belfast Urban Motorway. Now, the majority of the houses in the York Street area had already been cleared in the interests of 'slum clearance,' the intention being that people would eventually be moved back into the area.

Slide 6 - The motorway plans, however, changed the intention to move people back into the area. The majority of the residents of Sailortown were moved up to Shore Crescent, off the Shore Road, where you can see this monument to Sailortown - testament to the amount of former Sailortown residents who ended up there. The residents were also scattered around the city, to new estates like New Lodge, the Lower the Shankill, Divis and Twinbrook, never to return to Sailortown. We’ll walk further down into Sailortown to discuss what possibly happened and to look at St Joseph’s church which stands as a analogy for the area at large.

Stop 3 - St Joseph’s

This is St Joseph’s Church which, as you can see, now lies derelict. This church is totemic for the fate of Sailortown as a whole, although it’s final demise occurred about 30yrs after Sailortown can be said to have disappeared, even though the identity is maintained by an unfortunately ever dwindling core of individuals. Much of the land that was given up for the good of slum clearance and, later, the motorway was, much like St Joseph's, owned by the Catholic Church. According to residents that I interviewed as part of my PhD the parish priest promised from his pulpit that people would return to the area after the displacement of slum clearance. That, as you have seen, proved not to be the case.

The church’s numbers naturally declined over the course of the 70s and 80s, until the church was proposed to be closed in the late 1990s. The closure was strongly opposed by a strong core of individuals, the majority of whom now comprise the Sailortown Historical Society, which has now become the Sailortown Regeneration Group. The church was taken on by franciscans upon it’s closure until 2001, who eventually withdrew putting the fate of the church in the balance. It was occupied on 2 separate occasions by local protesters, the regeneration group, trying to save the buildings as a place of worship, until they eventually relented and, in return for the 99yr lease of the building, agreed that it would never again be a place of worship. There is currently a plan to make the building into a community centre -  a plan but no funding - so the church, it seems, will remain here untouched until it needs to be pulled down due to safety concerns.

Stop 5 - Clarendon Dock

Here, we can appreciate the unique nature of this part of the city. We have the old graving dock here, with two of the oldest buildings in Belfast, and in the background you have City Quays One, one of the newest ones. This area was the site of Belfast’s first shipyard and the traces of it can still be clearly seen. This building was also, briefly, the HQ of the Laganside corporation which as you probably know, was the first round of post-conflict redevelopment and part of the process of ‘normalisation’ as John Major called it - the process of making good the city’s physical and social fabric in the aftermath of the Troubles, another fascinating subjects far as the redevelopment of the city goes.

City Quays is a proposed 20 acre £250M mixed-use redevelopment of lands bound by the M3 Motorway, River Lagan, Dock Street and Corporation Street by Belfast Harbour Commissioners. In July 2010 the Harbour Commissioners submitted an outline planning application seeking permission for a "mixed use development comprising120 residential units, a hotel, 123,170 sqm of officespace, retail, cafes and restaurants and multi-storey car parking.