Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Spirit of Place: Birmingham Central Library

It looks as if the demolition is actually happening now: the shops in Paradise Forum are closed, & there is an air of activity around the place. I planned this as one of the picture-heavy posts I sometimes do - in fact I've done a related one on Paradise Place - but I'm ashamed to say that while I normally try to be scrupulous about sources, all of the pictures used here are from various sources on the internet. I have been collecting them for years & have not made a record of where I got them, so please do contact me (using the contact form on this blog) if I've inadvertently used something of yours. In addition to the pictures I did have a few things to say, but I'll have to confess that wikipedia have done a perfectly good summary of the background to this post:
'Birmingham Central Library was the main public library in Birmingham, England from 1974 until 2013. For a time the largest non-national library in Europe,[1] it closed on 29 June 2013 and was replaced with the Library of Birmingham. The existing building is due to be demolished in January 2015 after 41 years, as part of the redevelopment of Paradise Circus by Argent Group.[2] Designed by architect, John Madin in the brutalist style, the library was part of an ambitious development project by Birmingham City Council to create a civic centre on its new Inner Ring Road system; however due to economic reasons significant parts of the masterplan were not completed and quality was reduced on materials as an economic measure. Two previous libraries occupied the adjacent site before Madin's library opened in 1974. The previous library was opened in 1883 and was designed by John Henry Chamberlain featuring a tall clerestoried reading room, this was demolished in 1974 after the new library had opened.
Despite the original vision not being fully implemented the library has gained architectural praise as an icon of British Brutalism with its stark use of concrete, bold geometry, inverted ziggurat sculptural form and monumental scale. Its style was seen at the time as a symbol of social progressivism.[3] Based on this, English Heritage applied and failed twice for the building to gain listed status. However, due to strong opposition from Birmingham City Council the building gained immunity from listing until 2016.' (Source which also has a history of the various libraries over the years, a detailed description of the never-fully-executed plan & the presently-under-demolition building).
Of course this is a witchcraft blog, so the point of this is really the spirit of place & how that spirit both affects people & is contributed to by those people's actions.
There are a number of things that leap to the attention in this tale of civic extravagance & wanton waste.
The first is an apparently simple statement that the new Library of Birmingham is actually the *fourth* municipally-owned principle library in Birmingham in a period around 160 years. One of these four was destroyed in a fire, but since then there has been an unending cry of 'we need a new library'. Think the Library of Birmingham is the last gasp? No way. It is a Birmingham thing, the relentless expansion, demolition, rebuilding. The pace has probably slowed down somewhat because there is less money around than there is, so I wouldn't like to put a time scale on this prediction, but this one won't be the last. I feel this one may be less vulnerable to the need for continually-expanding book storage, since major economies have had to be made to build this one & the council is cash-strapped across the board. Rather the Library of Birmingham will be vulnerable to the mistakes that have been made in building it (it's very fancy, but I doubt it's resilient), equipping it (whoever heard of a library where you can't access the stack) & the financial situation of the whole world. Birmingham City Council have a great track record of neglecting landmark buildings to the point where there is no return & maintenance is always an earlt financial casualty.
The second thing that leaps to the eye is that there is a great history of plans that have not been executed. The reality is that the central library site as it has been from 1974 & particularly since the forum was filled in, has not at all been what was planned. The building is additionally not what was planned - the council's cheapening use of concrete has made it an eyesore. Madin's architecture is largely vanishing from the city - it is wildly unfashionable, & his brutalist masterpiece was misunderstood & ill-treated from the start. In places where the original colour of orange nylon carpet remains, what made the council think that purple paint would be a good colour for the walls? Again, the council's lack of maintenance made the building worse - it was tatty, escalators didn't work towards the end, it was dark, tables were graffitied, & so on. Concrete is perhaps the world's highest-maintenance building material. The original atrium was abused by being filled in (admittedly it was a planning mistake). The central library was a grand dream that was never executed properly & then doomed by forty years of municipal ill-treatment. If anyone in the planning department reads this, please don't commission these white elephants that you can't or won't maintain.
The third thing that springs to the eye is how much the central library is loved. Without it, there is one fewer landmark building in the city. There has been a campaign to save it. There have even been attempts to list it. But it's clearly been doomed for some time. The conservationists may not understand that it's a Birmingham thing - we demolish all the best (using that word to mean a unique architectural statement) buildings in the city, replace them, then there is the outcry about their loss. So this is the witch's last prediction for today: it will start as soon as the nondescript development with too many shops that will replace it is up & running, but there will be cries afterwards that it should have been saved.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Transgressive acts as gateways to the power

I'm still not settled in a permanent address. The upshot of this is that roads, routes, boundaries, & doorways of all sorts are featuring highly in my inner world at the moment. The spell I did last year with the river continues to have its kick-back effect on me, & I'm finding that in one way or another my life is involving endless unplanned crossings of the River Rea & its tributaries.
With magical 'coincidences' - always presented as chances & opportunities - come the challenge of transgressive acts. To me these are a key to the power. Initiation actually never ends & at each step of the way we have to change what we do to enable a new self to arise yet again. So often these initiations present as possible actions which will always transgress personal or societal norms. We are free to ignore these, but that just leaves us exactly where we are until the next one comes up. The sort of actions that I mean are instanced in my own situation by some opportunities involved in buying a flat. Would I gazump people to get what I wanted? Yes, I would. A minor example, but for me it contradicts the inner voice of my mother that you should always put other people before yourself. The point is that that act would transgress that norm for me personally. As it happens it looks as if I'm not going to have to gazump anyone, but I have made an offer on a flat which would mean ending the occupants' tenancy. Again, this would be perfectly my right, but my mother's commentary on this would be, 'You're putting people out in the street,' - this despite the fact they know their tenancy is coming to an end anyway, & we're hardly talking of a South African-style put-their-stuff-out-in-the-street eviction. This inner commentary is also transgressed by the fact that the flat belongs to a company which has gone into administration, so is being sold by the bank, trying to rescue what they can. This is the bit that would particularly send my mother into a dead spin - she would see this as profiting from other people's misfortune. It is only now that I'm realising my mother gave me a world-view in which I should actively disadvantage myself, & has bequeathed me this inner critic that actively stops me doing things which would be perfectly reasonable in anyone else's eyes. The simple fact is that in the world we live in, businesses go bust & their assets are sold off cheap, & if I were not to be involved in that it would still happen anyway. The magical lesson of this is to take it as one of those magical opportunities that sometimes come up: transgressing my historic inner critic is merely changing the way I act, with the immense effect of making my world more open to these opportunities & enabling me not actively to disadvantage myself, which is what my mother expects me to do.
The kind of acts I do not mean in this post are the kind of transgressive acts sought out by some magicians with the idea of progressing. Once you're on the path these things just arise & you can't force them. To set out looking for mores to transgress is to court disaster. Crowley defined 'black' magic as the refusal to accept change, & I think he's right - in this case, though, it may be defined as the insistence on setting the pace of change instead of letting it happen.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Cultural appropriation & the magical world

The picture illustrates what you find if you take apart one of the packets of joss paper. There is a great tradition of Chinese magic, often in a form of sigilisation, & many things that are recognisably sigils are visible in the picture.
I have commented before on this blog about the presence of African traditional magic - or rather in that case, charlatans taking money off people & pretending to be magical practitioners - in our European cities. In fact it is difficult to live in one of our modern diverse cities & be unaware, if you have an eye for magic, of the different kinds of magic going on. There is some recognisable Afro-Caribbean magic in Brum, for example. Of course to the magical person there is always an ambivalent dividing line between magic & religion, & one also sees Islamic magic, Chinese magic, Catholic magic, & what have you. For the purposes of completeness, my point here is that you will find quasi-magical, quasi-religious, & quasi-cultural practices originating in all the originating worlds of a population. Church of England magic? Ooooh, yes.
However in our white Anglo-Saxon culture there is a specific tradition of locating magic in what were traditionally considered 'exotic' cultures. I suspect this is an element of the tendency in European culture to make magic OK as long as someone else does it - you have to employ someone else to do the dirty work for you.
Alongside this our approach to other cultures - whether imbued with ideas of mystery, of 'darkness', or concpets of the 'noble savage' - has traditionally seen them as the source of magical knowledge. And of course this has come in fashions - there was a time when anything magic was almost always dressed up in Egyptian clothing. Another example would be the qabilistic undergirding of so much modern magic. Yet another would be the influence of the 'hippie' understanding of eastern mysticism since the 1960s.
In more recent times an awareness of 'cultural appropriation' - which means a more powerful culture taking aspects of a less powerful culture - has led to a discomfort with where we posit the sources of our magic. Perhaps the best example of this would be the Native American wannabees in the States.
Both of these positions make me intensely uncomfortable. The reality is that all cultures & religions at all times have had a culture-specific form of magic. Prophets & priests have also always gone off the rails into the domain of magic. And the simple fact it that the majority of these systems bear more than a passing resemblance to each other.
A further reason why either stealing from another culture because it's seen as magical or studiously avoiding cultural appropriation are both approaches that lead to a magical dead end is found in the nature of magic. In a magical world view, everything in the world is connected to everything else in some way. What usually differentiates the magical world view from most religious world views is that the magical practitioner is seen as part of this interconnected world, & indeed has some level of control over it. I therefore have both the liberty & duty of care which comes with this interconnectedness. It behoves me to be a good guest in a world I'm not native to, but there is no guarantee where the next magical inspiration will come from.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Witch Food: Lentil & Parsnip Soup

I'm not wishing to imply there is anything particularly distinctive about witches' food. Although obviously there will be, depending on the individual witch. I'm not vegetarian myself, but I was during some of the formative years of my life, so that as a result I eat meat but don't tend to cook a lot of it. I will often make a point of not eating meat before a magical working, but not eating meat wouldn't be out of the ordinary for me. Otherwise my tastes in food tend to be marked by my 1970s upbringing & the multicultural environment in which I've lived most of my life. While I call my cooking 'hippy food', it isn't really - it's nutritious but I'm not sold on organic or whatever. This recipe uses a staple ingredient for me: the mighty lentil.
Red Lentil, Parsnip, and Meyer Lemon Soup
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to taste
1 yellow onion, diced
2 fat garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste
3 small parsnips, peeled and diced
2 celery stalks, sliced
1 cup red lentils
1 quart stock - any kind. I used turkey
2 cups water
Juice from 1/2 Meyer lemon, plus more to taste
1/4 cup chopped cilantro, plus sprigs for garnish
ground chili, cayenne, or paprika to taste
1. In a large pot over medium-high heat, warm olive oil. Add onions and sauté until translucent, five minutes. Stir in garlic and continue cooking another two minutes. Stir in tomato paste, ground cumin, and kosher salt and continue cooking until tomato paste begins to brown, another two minutes.
2. Add parsnips, celery, and lentils then stir in stock and water and bring to a simmer. Cover pot, reduce heat to low, and cook until lentils are tender, about 30 minutes.
3. With an immersion blender, puree soup until smooth (or to desired consistency, chunky is nice too). Alternatively, puree soup in a blender or food processor, working in batches.
4. Stir in juice of 1/2 Meyer lemon, and adjust seasoning to taste, adding more lemon if desired. Stir in cilantro.
5. Ladle soup into individual bowls and finish each with a generous drizzle of olive oil, a few sprigs of cilantro, and a sprinkle of salt and chili or paprika.
(Credit: http://www.melissaclark.net/blog/2012/01/sunday-sou.html)

Hidden City: Underground Tunnel in Stirchley

Picture credit: via http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/forums/showthread.php/78817-GKN-Stirchley-Tunnels-Birmingham-March-2013
I'm liking living - temporarily - in the Stirchley area of the city. It's a very Birmingham place, by which I mean it has the characteristic mix of all sorts of people, & doesn't show all its facets on a superficial glance. Driving through, you merely see another depressed mixed-industrial & residential area.
It is, however, one of the urban exploration centres of the city. Until restoration started the disused baths was a great favourite & there are several disused factories. I didn't know that the mighty GKN had a works here, & particularly didn't know there is a tunnel under the road! Of course I haven't been in: the former car breakers mentioned in the page above is sealed up closer than a straight man's y-fronts. Nonetheless I had to 'reblog' it here as a facet of the hidden city, a hidden city I just keep on discovering!