To urbex or not to urbex? Is it all just nobler in the mind?

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Writers have a love-hate relationship with neologisms. A particularly fugly but fascinating one floating around recently is ‘urbexing’. I know it’s not family Christmas in the 1980s, but indulge me with some Call My Bluff:

1) To urbex (vb): To fill in the gaps. From Urbex (n.) – brand name of a crackfilling product for DIY and general building purposes.

2) To urbex (vb): To leap and bound, like the urbex (n.) – a gazelle-like African mammal.

3) To urbex (vb): to disassociate oneself from a former companion. Based on text-talk: urb – you are the best. Hence urbex: you are my ex best friend.

Stumped? I’m ashamed of you. Consider yourself urbexed forthwith.

Of course, I’m red-herring-ing you, leading you astray… deliberately. For to urbex is to go ‘urban exploring’ (aka ‘place hacking’), to venture into the corners of our supposed civilisation.

It may be a clunky-sounding word, but as an activity, in the cool and slightly dangerous stakes, it’s right up there with parcours and bungee. Urbexers get themselves off clambering into closed military bases, dilapidated warehouses, and empty asylums, trying to experience and photograph the hidden and forbidden aspects of urban existence. They risk falling foul of the law, and falling through rotten staircases. If you’re bitten by this bug, you may also be regularly bitten by large and slavering guard dogs. Be warned.

When I heard about urbexing, it seemed to open the latch on a hobby that I’ve enjoyed for years. Run-down and overgrown places fill my photo albums, mosaics themselves of rusty signs, mossy grafitti and cracked tiles. 

There is romance in documenting places so secret and forgotten. Where the progress of time is evident in the form of decay and fissure, it seems an act of rebellion to stop time in the instant of a photograph, to record and value something that society has lost interest in.

It’s not all about the shabby chic though. Recent pictures of the London Consolidation Crew ‘urbexing the Shard’ suggest that adventure and the process of change are important parts of this equation. The Shard is not tumbling down or in ruins. It is nonetheless a building in flux: it hasn’t yet reached its zenith. It is brand, spanking pre-new. We’re supposed to admire its upward thrust from a distance, watch it rising strangely into our consciousness from afar, like flicking through those old black and white pictures of the Eiffel Tower in progress. To dare to get up close and personal with the building already, to interact with it and mount it before it’s been groomed for us, is to refuse to wait for history: it’s an assertion of the now. Ironically though, a record is still needed. It seems that the ‘ex’ in urbex is not enough. The experience – even one as extreme as clinging to a ladder 300 metres above London having climbed its latest and still-growing skyscraper – must also be documented; urbexers need proof of their exploits in the shape of a photographic pudding. Urbexing images are often intriguing, thought-provoking and beautiful. Even some snatched from “up t’ Shard”, while not masterpieces in the genre, are surprisingly impressive.

Although I enjoy the photography of such unusual places, I wonder if, for writers, they are not better simply recollected. In our minds, we are free to embellish and merge images. Memories may, just like the places themselves, deteriorate over time, be invaded by foreign entities, and take on a new life of their own.

What’s more, there are places I’ve visited cameraless, which have lingered in my mind for years, both in their own right, and as possible settings for writing. My bestie (or urb? Anyone? No?) and I celebrated the culmination of our secondary education by drinking cheap wine in an overgrown cemetery in the grounds of a nearby mental asylum. By gum, we knew how to live. It was an eerie place. Walking through local countryside, a strange quiet would gradually fall. A single lop-sided tombstone would come into view among the trees, followed quickly by a horde of them, broken statues, and jutting crucifixes, looming towards you through the shadows. I’m sure there’s a story to be had here; for me it’s one to do with the many graves of women with a smaller grave at their feet – young, ‘fallen’ women who died in childbirth in the asylums they were put into by their families.

So, should writers hold images of place in their minds and let them simmer, or can we learn something through urbexing? Wordsworth’s Lines Written a few miles Above Tintern Abbey describe how, as a boy he “like a roe, bounded o’er the mountains” and experienced a joy “That had no need of a remoter charm, By thought supplied, or any interest Unborrowed from the eye.” But he goes on to critique these “dizzy raptures”, arguing the merits of recollecting such emotion in tranquillity:

Though absent long,

These forms of beauty have not been to me,

As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din

Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,

In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,

Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,

And passing even into my purer mind

With tranquil restoration:—feelings too

Of unremembered pleasure.

(Lines 21-32)

Hmm… For Wordsworth the meaningful journey or travelling is done by our feelings ‘along the heart and passing even into my purer mind’. Why bother venturing out or up the Shard at all? His poem may have been written above Tintern Abbey, but he doesn’t even mention the ruins of the abbey. Not very urban then. Mr WW isn’t into the bricks and mortar. Instead he’s well into nature and how “she can so inform The mind that is within us, so impress With quietness and beauty, and so feed With lofty thoughts, that […] nor all The dreary intercourse of daily life, Shall e’er prevail against us…”. Note how he omits a few pronouns in these lines. Nature does not impress us, nor feed it – No! For old Wordy Wordsworth, Nature has the ability to create such an immediate connection that the pronouns are bypassed.

Let’s not forget, when WW and Coleridge came out with the Lyrical Ballads, the idea that we could be inspired by simple, bucolic things was actually quite radical. ‘Tis maybe equally rad de nos jours, to get all elevated and uplifted over a disused subway. No wonder our urbexing pals are more interested in the urban, seeking their thrills “‘mid the din of towns and cities”. Yet, for all their photos captured at the top of the unfinished and scaffold-shrouded Shard, will today’s urbexers find their emotions “passing even into their purer mind”? Will their “wild ecstasies […] be matured Into a sober pleasure”? It seems the process has already started: a PhD thesis on urbexing has recently been published on www.placehacking.com. Its author states that such “recreational criminality” is “an effort to  connect in a meaningful way to a world rendered increasingly mundane by commercial interests and heightened ‘security’” (Bradley L. Garrett, 2012). Ironic that on his website, Garrett makes clear his commercial ownership of the Shard photos and actively hopes that the media will run/steal them so that he can fund a placehacking trip to Tokyo.

Wordsworth talks of long absences and of maturation, of inspiration “unborrowed from the eye”. It would be easy to polarise writing and urbex photography here. A photograph can combat years of absence and freeze a given moment, and what’s more, in theory it can do this instantaneously, whereas recording place in words (in pencil or in paint for that matter), takes and embraces time. Of course, the professional or passionate amateur photographer may linger and adjust for hours to get the right shot, (although I doubt this is the case for the average urbexer, clinging to a ladder somewhere, wondering if a security guard is around the next corner). Still (if you’ll pardon the pun), an ever-increasing plethora of photomanipulation apps invite us to edit, enhance and reflect on our digitally-captured experiences. Albeit a shortcut, could this be approaching the sort of interactive relationship with place that Wordsworth hints at?

Urbexing, like photography and writing, is about seeing what you already know in a different way. I sometimes get told off by friends for taking pics at funny angles and zooming in on odd details. But playing around with a landscape or building, imagining it at new angles, in sepia tones, a hundred years ago, in different weather conditions, at night – these are surely useful and interesting, if not essential, tools for writers.

Louis Sachar does transmogrification successfully and engagingly in his children’s book, Holes – where poor Stanley Yelnats must go to a correctional facility to dig holes in the desert; the same desert which, Sachar tells us, a hundred years ago was a glorious lake. Audrey Niffenegger invites us to join Henry, in The Time Traveller’s Wife, as he jumps in and out of eras in his life and loves (it’s perhaps no coincidence that Niffenegger is a visual artist). Meanwhile Jasper Fforde takes us further with his fictional detective, Thursday Next – who leaps in and out of literary history.

Writers are constantly managing two planes: immediacy and the arc of time within a piece. But what if we skew the balance towards immediacy? Towards the sort of visceral impact of urbexing or parcours? A manifesto for doing just this appeared in 2001: All Hail the New Puritans is a collection of stories from writers who reject any fancy pants authorial voice and flashbacks (or forwards), and posit works of fiction as “fragments of our time”, insisting on references to real, contemporary products and places. The problem? The resulting collection just isn’t that great.

We’ve seen more successful tricks already: Wordsworth cuts a few pronouns to suggest the direct effect of place on the imagination. Likewise in his novel Complicity, Iain Banks plays with pronouns, this time employing the pronoun “you” to enhance our ability to “get into” the novel: “You stand up and look through the spyhole in the broad, wooden door. You see the dark square outside, distorted by the lens. You can see the steps down to the pavement, the railings on either side of the steps…” It is no coincidence that other forms using this second person style, such as guidebooks and gaming or roleplay narratives, are ones whose function is to conjure a direct interface between place and person.

Putting these sleights of the written hand aside though, and concentrating just on the power that the setting exerts, what great literary locations of the urbexing ilk spring to mind? Here are my top three:

3) At the climax of her novel, The Little Friend, Donna Tartt places the main character in an abandoned water tower. This is the diametric opposite of her previous novel’s setting – an elegant and elite Vermont campus. But in my view it’s just as memorable.

2) Walter de la Mare’s The Listeners. Possibly a bit too National Trust, with its “forest’s ferny floor” and its “turret”, nonetheless the moonlit house, chocker with silent ghosts all listening to the “voice from the world of men” sends a shiver through me still.

1) Sticking with the nocturnal, my favourite literary urbexample occurs in the “silent, long, empty” streets of Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Pedestrian. Here the cement is “vanishing under flowers and grass” and highways are all “stone and bed and moon radiance”. Bradbury’s protagonist is quite the urban explorer: in the year 2053, when no one walks anywhere any more, all he has to do is step out of his front door for an evening stroll, and he is some sort of rebel anarchist.

Science fiction may or may not be the genre most in line with the urbexing vogue. Garrett chooses to align himself both with Beat poets, focusing on their underground and shifting lifestyle, and with archeology. Next time you peer curiously into a disused car park, quarry or shop-to-let, feel how you are effectively projected forward, invited to see our current world in new ways and as an artefact. Weirdly, Wordsworth puts it best: “…here I stand, not only with the sense Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts That in this moment there is life and food For future years.”

3 thoughts on “To urbex or not to urbex? Is it all just nobler in the mind?

  1. Fascinating stuff. Just finished reading “The Outcast” which has a very convincing 1950s setting: stifling cocktail parties, grungy bars, dreamy and eerie woodland, oppressive interiors. And I enjoyed the salty air and grimy surreality of the smuggling world in “Scapegallows” recently too.

  2. I’m reading The Sea, by John Banville at the moment. The main character is reflecting on his life through memories of place – so it fits in nicely here. He does it mainly via the lens of remembered summer childhoods by the sea. I’m struggling with it a bit. I think it’s because the stuffy, lonely guest house he’s staying in keeps reminding me of Eastbourne! Sorry Eastbourne tourist board! Great decision, though, to let the developers into the Wish Tower – a prime site on the seafront that felt and smelt like a care home. Ring in the changes!

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