I am imagining a storm and I am imagining all of us in the centre of it.
The storm is grey and purple like a new bruise. It is loud. We are standing in a market square listening to the strangled rattle of a broken weather vane as it whips and spins on a nearby rooftop. We are holding on to one another. The rain falls like something emptying, like something has broken and needs mending. We are up to our ankles in cloudy grey water and things don’t look like they will be improving any time soon. In the distance we can hear the barking of the sea as it chews its way towards the land. The sandy cliffs offer little resistance. We are still holding on to one another. Buildings fall. The water is cold. You look up into the clouds and you see the face of god and he is furious and you don’t know why.
On the flight that will bring me to Zagreb and from there to Maribor I am thinking about survival. Survival is the theme of this final City Lab but this is not why I am thinking about it. I am reading in Alexandra Harris’ beautiful book Weatherland about the town of Dunwich on the Suffolk coast in the east of England, not far from where I grew up.
Today Dunwich is a tiny village of around 80 people but in the Medieval period it was equivalent in size and importance to London. The former capital of a large and wealthy Anglo-Saxon kingdom, it was the most important coastal trading port in the country; a stone and timber metropolis born of the earliest shivers of European capitalism, with a fleet of over 80 merchant vessels nestled in its harbour and 50 churches to welcome seafarers back to land. In another history Dunwich could be Liverpool, it could be Amsterdam, it could be New York.
But Dunwich and its harbour were constructed on soft and pliant soil, along an empty coastline once held together by the trees that had long since been burnt away to create more farmland. When the climate changed in the late 13th and early 14th century and cold winds nurtured wild storms off the Suffolk coast, the town began to be pulled unrelentingly apart. A great storm in 1286 and two in 1287 destroyed almost everything, plunging churches into the harbour, sending whole chunks of land and all the houses and people on them spinning out into the sea. Very little was left. As WG Sebald describes it in Rings of Saturn:
The Dunwich of the present day is what remains of a town…All of it has gone under…and is now below the sea, beneath alluvial sand and gravel…All that survived…were the walled well shafts, which for centuries…rose aloft like the chimney stacks of some subterranean smithy…until…these symbols of the vanished town also fell down.
What do we do when we find ourselves caught in the path of such destructive and inexplicable forces, when the comforts forged from centuries of commerce are torn, physically or otherwise, from beneath our feet? In medieval Britain they rang bells. When the storm approached the bells would ring, to ward off the evil spirits that rode in on wind. The bells would be inscribed with descriptions to this effect. In case of emergency break glass.
I am imagining a storm and I am imagining all of us in the centre of it, and we are ringing the bells as loudly and as long as we can manage. We are warding off evil, or perhaps it simply gives us something to do, some way of saying that we are here. That we are, for now, surviving.