A camp in France

IMG_20160717_142637167, large

Everyone talks about the wind. The Rivesaltes internment camp stands on a flat stretch of land north of Perpignan, in the southwest of France. It’s not far inland and not even a hundred metres above sea level, but it feels high and exposed, with views extending to the Pyrenees. There’s no shade in the summer and no shelter in the winter. Scrubby, drought-resistant plants grow between broken lines of cheap concrete huts and latrines, and at the edge of the site a rank of sleek modern wind turbines catch the wind that’s always blowing from the mountains or the sea.

Senn, exterior 1Rivesaltes has been written about by people who lived or worked there in its multiple incarnations as an internment camp between the late 1930s and the 1960, or as an immigration detention centre from the 1980s to 2007. It has been written about by people who’ve visited it, to research its history or find out more about the stories of their family members, and by publicists for the new museum there. They all talk about the wind. In pictures taken by the Swiss photographer Paul Senn, who spent six months in the camp in 1942 reporting on the work of Swiss charities, inmates wear heavy woollen coats and headscarves and wrap themselves in blankets whether they’re inside the draughty, poorly insulated huts or outside in the brilliant sunshine and bitter cold of winter.

I visited the camp one afternoon last July, on a day when it was the sun, not the wind, that felt merciless. Some American friends were staying nearby with their teenaged sons and they met me in the village of Rivesaltes itself, at the tiny railway station. It was almost deserted on a Sunday afternoon, everyone on their way to beaches nearby. We drove out through vineyards and low-slung industrial estates, a little uncertainly at first—the satnav confidently giving wrong instructions—but then finding and following new signs for the Musée mémorial du camp de Rivesaltes.Senn, interior 2

My current research project is on the history of refugee camps: that’s why I was visiting Rivesaltes, and will visit it again. It started life as a military transit camp, built in 1938 with the intention of keeping colonial troops well away from French people in the event of a European conflict: the alternative name, camp Joffre (from the first world war marshal), still shows up on Google maps. Before it came into service as a military camp, though, it was used to house Spanish refugees fleeing the defeat of the Republic in 1939. These were the lucky ones: some, especially men of military age, were penned in barbed-wire enclosures on the nearby beaches of Argelès-sur-Mer and Barcarès. During the second world war the camp was used, in rapid succession, as a detention centre for ‘undesirable aliens’, a holding camp for Jews under Vichy, a camp for Axis prisoners-of-war at the Liberation, and a prison camp for collaborators. Later it was an accommodation centre for migrant workers, a transit camp for repatriated pied noir settlers from Algeria and then more lastingly a dwelling-place for Algerian Muslims who had fought on the French side in the war of independence between 1954 and 1962. It was also, at last, a military camp for colonial troops.

In the 1980s a detention centre was built on the site for undocumented Spanish migrant workers, but it opened just as Spain entered the European Economic Community and its citizens gained a full right to work in France. Undocumented migrants from other countries were detained there instead. By the 1990s, memorials had been placed around the camp by groups commemorating Jewish deportees, Algerian Muslims, and Spanish Republicans. The site was registered as a historic monument in 2000, and by 2005 was open to visitors, but the detention centre only closed in 2007, around the time that the decision was taken to create the museum.

plaque
He lost the socialist party primary the weekend I drafted this

Continuing to lock up immigrants on a site dedicated to commemorating the past victims of the French state’s illiberal immigration practices would have looked bad. But that continuity exists, and creates a tension that runs through the museum. Plain letters on a bare concrete wall note that it was opened in October 2015 by Manuel Valls, then prime minister. Valls—himself a naturalised French citizen born to immigrant parents—was not notably liberal on immigration either as premier or, earlier, as interior minister.

mucem
The concrete manufacturer was understandably pleased with the result

The building is impressive, but not obtrusive. Designed by the starchitect Rudy Ricciotti, it’s far more restrained than his other and much larger recent museum design, the exuberant but overblown MuCEM on the waterfront at Marseille. Where that shows off, with its patterned concrete screens and seemingly unsupported pedestrian walkway from the fort St-Jean, the Rivesaltes museum deliberately conceals itself. To avoid overwhelming a site mostly made up of low and semi-ruined concrete huts, the structure—a long sloping slab of ochre concrete—is half-buried in a depression dug out of what was once camp Joffre’s parade ground. You barely notice it until the walkway leads you down into the building. It’s only from the air that you can get a sense of its size, as these images from the architect’s website show:

ricciotti-rivesaltes-2

ricciotti-rivesaltes-1

This means the building manages to be unobtrusive relative to the site it commemorates, while also creating a doubly memorable architectural effect: the sheer gee-whizz factor when you realize what’s happening (“They hid a whole museum!”), and, quite different, the sense as you walk down towards the entrance of being drawn out of the open air and bright sunshine into an enclosed and hidden space. It’s not the same as being interned yourself, but it creates an emotional resonance that the museum’s long corridors and sombre exhibition spaces sustain.

I’m interested in the camp at Rivesaltes because it’s not unusual. It’s not unusual for refugee camps to house different groups of displaced people successively, or for that matter at the same time. And it’s not unusual for a camp that houses refugees to serve as different kinds of camp at other times: Rivesaltes was a military camp, an internment camp, and a prisoner-or-war camp as well as a refugee camp, while other refugee camps have been made out of forestry camps or holiday camps. These are two important things for me to understand and explore as I continue my research.

Rivesaltes is also not unusual, or at least not exceptional, in the amount of academic research, reportage, and literary or other artwork that it’s generated: for some examples, try searching on Google Scholar for “Dadaab refugee camp“, or reading Kate Evans’s powerful new comic book about the Calais ‘Jungle’, Threads.

IMG_20160717_164010362

What does make Rivesaltes unusual is that memory organizations commemorating different groups came together to preserve the site, and successfully got government support to create the memorial museum. This has allowed historians working on different periods, and other researchers too, to come together to try and develop a shared understanding of the history of this uneasy, windswept place. (You can go there to watch the sunrise, which would surely be atmospheric.) The museum takes an impressively long and hard look at France’s containment, detention, and deportation of displaced populations across the middle of the twentieth century. But you also leave with the sense that, perhaps inevitably for a state-run institution, it is looking away from the present. It’s one thing to allow historians and the public to examine such practices in the past, but acknowledging their continuity in our own time would be uncomfortable indeed for Manuel Valls and his successors.

Update (29 June): see comments below for some thoughts, and relevant links, from colleagues in France.

Update (1 July): the director of the museum’s Comité scientifique also commented: again, see below.

Click images for source.
If that doesn’t take you off this blog,
I took the photo.

 

 

 

Pogo with the Quo

I’ve never done an oral history interview, though I keep meaning to start. But the other night, on a ten-minute taxi ride home from a concert, I got an informal bit of oral history.Jim MacNeary, Glasgow Apollo

As soon as he heard I’d been at a gig, the driver began reminiscing about gigs he’d been to himself, especially as a young man in the seventies and eighties. The venue he talked about most was the Glasgow Apollo, which closed in 1985—he’d seen several gigs there, the first of them Status Quo in the 1970s. The ticket for that one, he said, cost £1.50, and when a friend heard that he was going he said “I hope you’re not in the upper balcony!” But he was indeed in the upper balcony, and when he got there he understood why his friend had said that: it was perilously steep and high, and when people started dancing down at the front of it it felt as if the whole thing was shaking. There were bouncers, he said, going up and down the aisles at rock gigs like that, but if you watched the bouncers in the upper circle you’d notice that they didn’t go all the way down to the rows closest to the stage: from the doors at the top, they’d walk down the stairs of the aisle as far as about five rows up, then stop.

Pink with gold trimThis was a conversation in a taxi: I didn’t take notes, and I’m only getting round to writing this a few weeks later. But the internet being the internet, checking a few details and learning more was easy. The Apollo opened as Green’s Playhouse cinema in 1927—the largest in Europe, according to this website about Scottish cinemas, seating 4,368 (!), and with a ballroom above the auditorium too. You wouldn’t have guessed this from the pavement in front of the building on Renfield Street, where the entrance was set in a row of shops with offices above them (all part of the same building), but going inside must have been like entering another world. A pretty lurid world, too: I don’t know what the colour scheme was in 1927, but when the building was operating as a concert venue between 1973 and 1985 much of the interior was painted in shocking two-tone pink with gold trim.

How this looked under normal lighting, I’m not sure. This is one of a series of photos taken as the building was demolished, in 1987, after a fire had left it strucurally unsafe. Or perhaps that should be even more structurally unsafe: the building’s structural problems were apparently the reason why it was closed two years earlier.

The Apollo had a reputation as the best rock venue in Britain, and ‘the Quo’ loved it—they played there seven times in a single year (1976), a record for the venue, and their three concerts that December were used for recording a live album. I wonder if it was one of these gigs that I heard about from the chap whose taxi I was riding in: if so, he’d have been entitled to one of these stickers:

Quo_Live76_Fixed

That formidable reputation may explain why the online forum devoted to its memory has had nearly ten million visitors. It also figures heavily on the discussion boards of other forums, about Glasgow or about bands who played there. So anyone who wanted to do a proper oral history project about it would find it easy to recruit interviewees. As I did a brief skim of the internet to write this post, a few questions sprang to mind. Was the Apollo’s reputation justified—and if so, why? It wasn’t just a rock venue, but that’s what it’s most famous for: the names most immediately associated with it by Google are Status Quo, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, AC/DC… and this picture of fans at an AC/DC concert makes it look like a bit of a boys’ club, as does the painting at the top of this post. So what was the gender history of the Apollo? In the mid-century heyday of the Glasgow dance halls, these were mixed (that was the whole point of them): was it all sweaty boys later in the century? The cutaway architectural plan shows kitchen, offices, an art room, though whether these were still in operation in the ‘Apollo years’ or dated from the time of Green’s Playhouse I don’t know. Still: what was it like to work at the Apollo, in the box office, backstage, or as a bouncer?

A bit more time on the internet, though, revealed that someone has recently completed a PhD about this: Kenny Forbes, now teaching at the University of the West of Scotland. He ran a blog about the project, and his thesis, You had to be there? Reflections on the ‘legendary’ status of the Glasgow Apollo theatre (1973-85), is available on the e-theses site of my own institution. (It’s been downloaded over 200 times since it was submitted less than a year ago: more evidence that the old ‘no-one reads PhD theses’ claim is nonsense.) So if a student ever asks me about doing their dissertation on this, they’ll have to come up with an original angle of their own.

Playhouse cutawayAnd what about the balcony? The Wikipedia page on the Apollo is on the brief side, but claims that the balcony was ‘designed and built so that it would move up and down’. I’m dubious about this: for a concert venue that might make sense, but for an auditorium designed as a cinema? Kenny Forbes expressed similar doubts on his blog, having heard the claim in several places but found no evidence to support it. He posted some architectural plans and asked if any readers could help: I’ll need to read the thesis to find out if he got any answers. But no-one is in any doubt that it moved, alarmingly. The bouncers were right to take care.

Click images for sources, which aren’t always properly sourced themselves.
The  painting at the top is by Jim MacNeary, sourced from Kenny Forbes’s blog.

This post is for my uncle Phil,
who loved knowing about music and buildings in a city’s history.

 

Glasgow 1980

1 External corridor, Maxwell Oval

When I was offered (and immediately accepted) my current job, I sent a text message to a friend with the news: Lifelong Belle & Sebastian Fan Gets Job In Glasgow Shock. So when the band themselves played a home-town gig last May, I was quick to get myself a ticket. It was also a chance to see the inside of the SSE Hydro, the recently built enormodrome I cycle past on my way to and from work: Glasgow is surely the only city in the world where Belle & Sebastian could hope to (mostly) fill a 13,000-seater arena where you’re more likely to find Miley Cyrus or World Wrestling Entertainment than gentle art-pop.*

After the support act had finished, Stuart Murdoch’s voice came over the speakers and announced that before the band came on they were going to show a film called ‘Glasgow 1980’, and inviting us to watch it if we liked, or ignore it and just mill about if we preferred.

This is a film for people, about the city they live in—how the city is changing for the people.

At the time, I thought I was the only person in the audience who actually watched it.

Glasgow 1980 was produced in 1971 for the city corporation, by a company called Ogam Films. It’s about the twenty-year transformation of Glasgow after 1960, and presents a startlingly intense vision of where that road—and it was a road—was meant to lead. The process was traumatic :

Between 1960 and 1970, fifty-two thousand houses were demolished in Glasgow.

2 IMG_20160130_133052616

But the film is in no doubt that all this was necessary for a city in a steep spiral of deindustrialization: ‘It had to change’, the narrator declares.

For a locally-made publicity film for the city corporation’s urban regeneration programme, Glasgow 1980 is a remarkably powerful document. That’s partly because of the team that made it: Oscar Marzaroli, the director (and co-founder of the production company), was one of Scotland’s foremost photographers, while the editor, Bill Forsyth, became a director himself, famous for Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero. The music, by local guitarist Iain McHaffie, is also quite something. (It’s harder to find information about McHaffie online, but someone else who was struck by the music for this film had a go.) You can listen to the main theme on YouTube, and you can watch the whole film here, on the website of the Scottish Screen Archive. It’s half an hour long, though it didn’t feel like that when I was watching it at the Hydro. At least, not to me.7 Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 22.20.32

For anyone familiar with Glasgow’s history since the early 1970s, the film’s confident optimism—not to say arrogance—about the process of transformation would strike many ironic chords. The radical solutions to the city’s ills proposed by the corporation and celebrated in the documentary created plenty of new problems, some of which were already visible by the time Marzaroli filmed it and remain with us today.

4 IMG_20160130_133442485_HDRThe area I live in features in the film, for a few seconds (starting at 4’49”). The medium-rise flats that were then newly built are a block away from where I live, in a 1905 tenement building of the sort that were being knocked down in their hundreds in the Gorbals and other nearby neighbourhoods. After I (at last!) got a smartphone a few weeks ago, I took some photos as I went past one morning—the pictures illustrating this post.

With their overhead connecting bridges at the second and fifth storey and long external corridors (see top of post), they’re reminiscent of the ‘streets in the sky’ at Park Hill in Sheffield, built in 1957-61. On the satellite view in Google Maps you see them from above as two T shapes connected at the base by a long bar, T__T. But the left-hand T is no longer there. It was knocked down over the winter. The ragged edges are visible where the skyways from the demolished building met the block that’s still standing, and as I walked down Maxwell Drive I came across the pile of rubble that remains.

3 IMG_20160130_133707966

A friend who’s doing a research project on this part of town (and who took some almost identical photos when she walked past recently…) tells me that the demolished blocks will be replaced by new flats—plenty have sprouted around the place in the last decade or two. You could be forgiven for thinking that the new flats will look like this:

6 IMG_20160224_171154871_HDR

Only on closer inspection do you realize these sharply-attired new flats facing the drab brown ones across St Andrews Drive are part of the same development, but have been given a thorough makeover. They look almost identical in the aerial photo from Google Maps (another T, this one with half its crossbar missing, in the top right hand corner). But from street level the renewed façade and the beech saplings are a good disguise—it’s the overhead walkways linking the two blocks that are the real giveaway:

5 IMG_20160224_171142127_HDR

The other blocks appear to be staying where they are; perhaps they’ll get a refurb like the above. The squat tower blocks that line the railway just to the north—along the top of the aerial photo, and marching on further west—have had a similar refit: I didn’t recognize them in Glasgow 1980 until I rewatched some of it for this post (the camera pans round to them at 05’00″–05’03”). The groovy purple lights that shine softly down from them after nightfall are a signal that we’re nearing home when I’m on the train back from a bikeride in Ayrshire or on Arran on a winter’s afternoon, always slightly depressing because we pass within 250m of my house but the train doesn’t stop till Glasgow Central, a mile and a half away.

Ogam Films recorded a lot of footage for a sequel to Glasgow 1980, entitled Glasgow’s Progress—but production was halted in 1978, according to the Scottish Screen Archive, as ‘there seemed to be no end to the urban renewal in sight’. Meanwhile, in 1980 the Magnum photographer Raymond Depardon was commissioned by the Sunday Times to visit Glasgow. (He’d recently done a reportage from Beirut.) They never published his pictures, but some of them featured in a 2013 retrospective at the Grand Palais. They sparked enough interest, among Depardon’s photos from Lebanon, Latin America or Ethiopia, that they’ve now been released in a book published in France and Britain (and with a short text in French and English) by Seuil. It’s a brilliant collection, but it’s not the 1980 that Marzaroli’s film promised.

8 852597-the-crying-child-photo-raymond-depardon-magnum

(If you want to see more of the photos before you decide to shell out for the book, several newspapers in Britain and France ran stories/image galleries, including Libération and the Scotsman—or you can see them all on the Magnum website.)

Meanwhile, it looks like I wasn’t the only person watching Glasgow 1980 at that concert last year. A new short film has just been made, (Re)Imagining Glasgow, which takes its inspiration from Marzaroli’s film. It mixes some of the footage recorded for the unfinished follow-up with footage from Glasgow today, still unfinished as it is. It was premiered as part of the Glasgow Short Film Festival the Sunday before Easter, and I’d love to say that I saw it—but, having travelled back from Liverpool that morning specially, I only got back to Glasgow just in time to get there a minute or two before showtime. On a sunny spring afternoon, I found myself standing in the longest queue I’ve ever seen at the GFT, and when I got to the head of it the tickets were long since sold out, even though the film (and accompanying panel discussion) had been moved into screen 1, the big auditorium. It’s good to know that that many people care, that much, about the remaking of Glasgow. I hope they’re not getting too many ideas though.

9 Stanley St
Meanwhile, just on the other side of the motorway…

 

Images all by me except the Google Maps aerial view
and the Depardon photo. Click that one for source;
otherwise, they’re CC-BY so feel free to use them,
with attribution and without alteration

*Cycling past before the Miley concert, the streets were full of excited girls and young women in ‘Twerk It!’ t-shirts walking and talking in happy groups. Cycling past as the wrestling let out, they were full of utterly psyched nine-year-old boys and their equally wild-eyed dads. It was terrifying.

Streamline Moderne

Seaside Modernity
Clydeside modern

I spotted this poster while I was out and about in town yesterday, and googled Rothesay Pavilion as soon as I got home. What a place!

The exhibition, by the artist Ally Wallace (who’s recently been doing some work for my employer), precedes the Pavilion’s closure for two years of restoration work. Built in the late 1930s to a design by the Ayr architect James Carrick—only 24 when he won the competition—the Pavilion has retained much of its original fabric intact. It was constructed as a response to the first indications of the ‘decline of the British seaside town’ [1], which made themselves felt between the wars (somewhat earlier than the Wikipedia article thinks). The idea then was to make Rothesay a more appealing destination for Glaswegians going ‘doon the watter’, but when the decline really kicked in after the second world war the Pavilion made a reasonably successful transition to become a local civic centre—it’s still used today by a wide variety of local groups, unlike Carrick’s similar building on the mainland at Gourock, long since demolished: some original pictures here.

Carrick, says the Dictionary of Scottish Architects, was a ‘significant modernist’, and the Pavilion is his finest surviving work. It’s been on the Buildings at Risk register for a while, not so much for lack of routine maintenance—the building has been reasonably well looked after—as because the original materials are now showing their age.

The pavilion has been described as “International Style Modernism at its best with little if anything of its period to equal it in Scotland”. [2] The building sits at the junction of Argyle and Mackinlay Streets, looking over Rothesay Bay, and clearly visible to visitors arriving by ferry. It has an asymmetrical design, combining flat roofs, moderne curves and large expanses of metal-framed glazing with walls of buff-coloured synthetic stone ashlar over a concrete structure to produce a Scottish version of streamline moderne. The distinctive lettering on the façade is not original. The cantilevered first floor shelters the entrance and the bowed wing on the left housed a café, flooded with light from the curved curtain-wall glazing, with a covered sun terrace above. The square projection to the right houses the stairs. The roof promenade behind the upper balcony was covered with Lavacrete so that the surface would be dry immediately after rain – an important consideration given the Scottish weather.

Rothesay Pavilion front elevation
Googling “Lavacrete” is less rewarding

Local groups have been trying to raise £8 million to have it restored for over a decade, and a recent £3 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund means the budget for the project is now in place—it’s starting shortly. Presumably because of this, the building is the Twentieth Century Society’s building of the month for May.

Rothesay Pavilion foyer, Argyll and Bute council
Moderne

Carrick’s career as an architect was interrupted by the second world war, and although he returned to a successful practice afterwards his later work doesn’t seem to have had quite the panache of the buildings he designed as a young man in the 1930s. There’s a portrait of him as a fly-fishing retiree [3]; only his keen gaze seems to mark a connection between the modern-as-tomorrow foyer of Rothesay Pavilion in the 1930s and the man who designed it as he was fifty years later.

James A Carrick

[1] I learned a bit about this from a rather good undergraduate dissertation about a different Firth of Clyde resort that I supervised this year: some references are here.

[2] By F A Walker, RIAS Illustrated Guide: North Clyde Estuary, p. 159

[3] This portrait isn’t attributed on either of the two websites I found it on. The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland and the Dictionary of Scottish Architects: sort out your references.