Friday, 6 May 2011

The Allure of Strange White Powder and "On the Hash"

Often, as we walk with purpose, or as we walk with no purpose at all other than than that which is evident, we are pulled off our intended path by something we've seen, something we've thought about and so want to investigate more closely, something interesting - something mysterious, something intriguing, something we've not yet learned about. These concentrated distractions might take us to places we might not otherwise go, to see things we might not otherwise see, to do things we might not otherwise do and meet people we might not otherwise meet. Allowing a route to be determined by this form of willfully unwilled non-determinism is the kung-fu of pathfinding which can take us well off the beaten track - over, under and through - at right-angles to more usual lines of communication.

The other day, walking from Other Aberdeen's prestigious atelier in the upscale heart of downtown Pitmuxton to a bike shop near Holburn Junction, I was pulled off my route by the psychogeographical gravity-field generated by a series of anomalous ad-hoc (and curiously transient in intent) artifacts. A mysterious white powder had been deposited in little piles in strategic locations. These extemporised powdery piles led me on, intrigued - Broomhill Road, Nellfield Place, Great Western Road. On corners, by existing street-furniture artifacts, on kerbstones and in the edge between pavement and wall; these chalky deposits were spaced at around 70 pace intervals - generally visible by line-of-sight one to the next.

I couldn't help myself - I had to follow...

Powder-led across Great Western Road and down Cuparstone Row (Cuparstone, not 'cooper...'; nothing to do with barrels - this is where they used to make cups), I began to feel a bit, well, freaked out. One of the effects which picking an implement from the psychogeographical toolbox is intended to have on your experience of the urban environment is to defamiliarise you from the surroundings which you might otherwise regard as mundane and everyday. To give you 'new eyes' with which you might discern new truths. On that day, I was already in no small way pre-disconnected from the everyday, having earlier been traced and questioned by police for the completely innocent and innocuous act of taking some photographs of an office building some weeks earlier.

So, as I followed the white-powdered road, I already felt as if I didn't belong in this town; I already felt as if I was a stranger in a strange land, as if I wasn't wanted here and as if my 'sideways' walking (and thinking) was regarded as transgressive by the rest of the people and power and capital in Aberdeen. The sun was shining, the air was warm, and so defamiliarised and disconnected was I from this local area I know so well that I felt almost as if I was abroad on holiday somewhere deeply foreign. The sort of package-holiday people take to cheap destinations with questionable regimes and a repressed polity. It felt as if following the powder trail was transgressive. And, what's more, I felt like transgressing! The crumb-trail fantasy would lead me to the resistance movement! To like minded individuals! We could help each other! I was not alone!

On and down Cuparstone Row, deep into the valley of the Justice Mill Burn (or Ferryhill Burn, or Holburn, or Howburn - suit yourself) where Union Glen dives beneath the vaults of the valley-vaulting Holburn Viaduct at the true ground level of the Malt Mill, I stopped to more closely examine a white powder deposit, in this case placed up upon a granite-rubble and lime-mortar wall (and so differentiated from the fallen blossom on the ground below). I reached out and pinched some of the soft talcum-texture particles, rubbed them between finger and thumb. I thought better of doing the cop-movie thing of putting a little on the tip of my tongue. I'm not that stupid!

Fast-thumping footfalls rushing down the steepening slope behind me, running towards me, louder - closer - quicker and quicker. I whirl round on my heels, heart thumping, to see a slightly dumpy woman, early middle aged, red-faced sweaty and puffing. Her elbows tight-in to her side, fist-prim thumbs pointing skyward - jog pumping up-and-down for groupthink jog-joy. Her fringe moist-plastered to her pinky-blotched forehead, "Don't worry, it's the hash!" she half-gasped half-shouted to me as she woobled past, knees buckling, eyes wide.

But clearly, this white powder was not hash.

Then another - much the same type of pear-shaped plum-velour-swathed sweaty woman jogster who really shouldn't: "It's just flour! We're the Aberdeen Hash House Harriers!"
"Aaaaaah! I see... but..." I started.
"Can't stop - I'll be last in the pub!" she grinned over her shoulder as she disappeared into the high-contrast darkness under the granite arch of the viaduct and away. I was left alone blinking and thinking in the spring sunshine, in the quiet, beside a flour-smirched wall as her footfalls diminished to nothing, echoing distorted on the dank-vault roof of the viaduct arch.

I felt like such an idiot. The Hash House Harriers! We understand the Hash House Harriers to be an international non-competitive jogging and heavy-drinking movement. When they organise a run - 'a Hash' - the route taken is marked with chalk or other temporary marking - in this case the baking flour I was still ruminatively rubbing between thumb and fingers. Largely consisting of ex-pats and transient workers parachuted into positions in unfamiliar towns, 'the Hash' is a way for people in these positions to bond both with each other and with their location. And then they get pissed. But there is psychogeographical and communitarian value in their activities, which sometimes border on street-theatre and performance art. It's fascinating that they too, like we, regard the urban space as their playground, seeking out layers and routes which are off the beaten track. By their routes they express and entertain themselves, and contribute to the community on their own terms.

To hell with the idea of jogging, though.


Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, when I spent a short time working in South Korea, I took part in just one such event...and still have the t-shirt, somewhere.

There was, however, no jogging involved on that particular event.

uair01 said...

One would think that using white powder could cause quite a stir nowadays? It might lead to another one of those "unwanted police attention" incidents you wrote about. Strange that the organizers didn't think about that.

2001 anthrax attacks

Hope I got the link right.

Mick Miller said...

So now I know - the white piles of hash appear, periodically, around my way too. I had guessed they marked a trail but was never sure what for......

spoon said...

Nice research! I had thought that white power was some sort of anti-septic agent to cover dog or bird shit.

You can see why my feelings led me not to rub it between finger and thumb.