Dispatches from a Stricken World IV

Latest 'palimpsest' for our Outbreak series, reflecting on the global pandemic and its aftershocks. ' Mending a body, a world entails facing its brokenness': in Oxford Nancy Campbell strives to unlock communications with her partner, struck with aphasia before lockdown; Mike Hembury opens the door to discover the deeper and wilder layers of his neighbourhood in Berlin.
Nancy is a writer whose work responds to cultural and climate change in polar and marine environments. Her publications include The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate, How to Say “I Love You” in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet and the poetry collection Disko Bay. Mike is an Anglo-Berliner originally from Portland, England. He’s a writer, musician, photographer, sailor, environmentalist and poet. His novel New Clone City was published by The Wild Word.

Broken Places, Berlin-Neukölln 


When I was a kid I had a dog, and my dog took me everywhere with her. She took me along paths and shorelines, through marshes and brambled ways, into quarries and along cliff tops, over sea-slick rocks and out past fishermen’s huts to the lighthouse at the place where the seven currents meet. She took me out in the fogs and the winter storms, and made me smell the earth or the sickly sweetness of low tide wrack or the rankness of bait-encrusted crab pots. She turned a being-in-a-place into a visceral imprint, so that now, half a century later, and half a continent away, it’s easy for me to call up the spray of the Atlantic on my face or the taste of salt on a rounded pebble.  

Maybe it’s that need for a gut-level belonging that makes me think of her now, in these times of post-corona lockdown and environmental breakdown. Perhaps it’s the hygienic strictures of our new regime that have had me snuffling around the broken places of this my chosen home. Berlin-Neukölln is known for its ugliness as much as anything else, and it’s taken our particular form of lockdown – staying home, but with exercise allowed – to send me out in a frenzy of exploration. And even though the lockdown has now eased, I still find myself regularly squeezing through gaps in fences, picking through the burnt-out remains of a local swimming pool complex, connecting hitherto unknown stretches of canal path to draw a completely new internal map of my neighbourhood.  

I’ve been watching the spring unfold into summer, and documenting the slow explosion of chestnuts horse and sweet, and learning the names of the great mullein, traveller’s joy and viper’s bugloss that flourish down on the stretch of wasteland between the canal and the motorway flyover.   

It’s an inner-city borough, and yet I’ve found that in the space of a ten-minute bike ride, I can be surrounded by trees, or can watch the sunset over the four-armed canal junction, or catch myself gazing in wonder at a sloping field of poppies along the motorway embankment. 

I’ve been peeling away the layers of modernity, re-discovering the rural core of old Neukölln – a small village called Rixdorf that was founded in the 18th century as a place for Huguenot refugees to rebuild their lives. Only since corona do I know that my home lies in the Urstromtal, the valley of the ancient river that coursed around Berlin’s original twin islands of Berlin and Cölln. 

Canal Junction, Neukölln (photo: Mike Hembury)

There’s something satisfying in that knowledge, something good about connecting with the earth and water of a place.  

There’s a new six-lane autobahn being built through the south-east of the district – a senseless white concrete gash that has trashed allotments and “wasteland” alike. The groundwater in Berlin is high, so the development has created a temporary, and moveable, artificial lake that has turned a deep turquoise-green from the minerals in the water.  

The lake is beautiful-ugly, the autobahn weirdly calm, at least at the weekends when work stops and the locals – kids on bikes mostly, or curious old photographers like myself – can scramble down to the ground zero of the roadworks and marvel at the huge dam that’s stopping the lake from flooding the entire site. 

 Of course, it’s a post-apocalyptic kind of aesthetic. Pre-post-apocalyptic. Like our whole society, at its present juncture. But the motorway building site has its own resonance – a hyperindustrial, megalomaniac subservience to the automobile that feels so much like a road to nowhere.  

The motorway building site has its own resonance – a hyperindustrial, megalomaniac subservience to the automobile that feels so much like a road to nowhere. 

Further to the south, the existing autobahn buzzes and whines with the sound of endless engines. And there’s a place, by Neukölln’s old ship canal, where three flyover bridges from the overhead junction meet, that’s become one of my favourite haunts. 

Undisturbed, the vegetation has run wild. Poplars and chestnuts line the canal, which nowadays is barely used. The crash of the cars overhead reminds me of the constant acoustic backdrop of shoreline surf from my youth. And because of its constancy, it becomes easy to ignore. Strangely, perversely almost, the shadows of the flyover, the desolation and the lush verdant regrowth, the stillness of the canal and the filth-encrusted e-bikes fished from it, form a perfect backdrop for meditations on where we are, and where we are going.  

There’s a sadness there, sure. And a terror, if I’m honest.  

But there’s something else, something the ground and water are giving me. The ground is offering up its smell and saying welcome. The dark water holds a serenity. The plants are saying look how beautiful we are, look how strong we are.  

The place is a compound entity, a being-together.  

And below the waves of overhead combustion, each part resonates with a simple message.  

You are with us now. Here’s your childhood. Here’s your future. Here’s your dog. 

– Mike Hembury


For full album of Mike’s photographs of Berlin post-lockdown:  mikehembury.org


Darien chest (photo: National Museums of Scotland)

Skeleton Keys


A lock holds something safely in place, or keeps something valuable hidden. But what lies within the lock itself? And if you knew how it worked, could you unpick it? 

There’s a treasure chest at the heart of the museum on Chambers Street in Edinburgh. It is displayed open, revealing a complex mechanism of 15 spring bolts beneath the lid. The opening of one is dependent on all; the strips of metal flow around each other, decorated with cast iron flowers and delicate leaves. It is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, although the brilliance of its engineering was to ensure it was rarely seen. The chest belonged to the Darien Scheme, a disastrous 17th-century venture to establish a trading colony on the isthmus in Panama and establish a Scottish trade route with the Far East. Whatever treasure the chest once contained isn’t mentioned in the museum catalogue; the wonder now is the artifice of the lock.

In the moments that COVID-19 claimed its first victims in Wuhan, I was sitting on a blue plastic chair on the fifth floor of an Oxford hospital, watching my partner as she slept. Anna’s face was wan, her arms mottled by deep bruises. A baroque arrangement of tubes surrounded the bed. Anna’s life had been saved by a rare procedure known as mechanical thrombectomy, which sends a catheter through the arteries to siphon clots from the brain. It can only be done in the first hours of a stroke. I tried to imagine the surgeon’s intricate manoeuvres. As in a movie, the actor finds the combination to a safe in a race against the clock, turning a dial by torchlight in a dark room. 

When Anna awoke monster was one of the few words she could say. Monster! with a look of incomprehension and terror at her own act of speech. Did she mean herself or me – or something else? As the days passed she found other words, and strung them together for me to unravel: You have a beautiful theme

Nurses came with tests: first, a piece of paper on which was a pattern of stars. Anna was instructed to draw circles around each of them. Since her right arm was paralysed, she took the pen in her left, and scribbled all the stars out. Let’s try again, said the nurse kindly, as if it didn’t really matter, presenting Anna with an identical sheet, and explaining the task once more. Anna struck through the stars furiously, as if wishing to obliterate them. When I left the ward, the nurse followed me out. Standing beside the machine where you could put in a coin and get a cup of bad coffee, she said: You do know, that Anna has very severe aphasia?

Anna’s body had changed irrevocably, but with determination she learnt to walk again, and was released from rehab a few days before lockdown. Due to the pandemic all outpatient therapies were written off, and her support worker was not permitted to visit. After living in public on the ward for months, she was suddenly alone.

We were marooned on separate islands of sorrow. Grief permeated the basement flat, the air thickened by it, like sour milk.

I established a routine, unaware that it would continue for months: qi gong each morning, moving as much of our bodies as we could; then meals, equally slow and sombre. Silent tears accompanied the feasts Anna prepared, the plate soon pushed away, appetite gone. We were marooned on separate islands of sorrow. Grief permeated the basement flat, the air thickened by it, like sour milk. When all it go so wrong? she asks. Mending a body, a world entails facing its brokenness. Spring turned to summer, and in our small garden beans and tomatoes grew where narcissi had been. 

Questions arose: Can a paralysed limb feel pain? Where did those new bruises keep coming from, and should we tell someone? The changes to Anna’s body were apparent, but what stars were shooting through her mind? She does not have the language to tell me. 

Conversations take time – on both sides. Living with another’s aphasia makes me weigh my own words more carefully. I have been completing a book about words meaning ‘snow’ around the world, especially in languages on the verge of extinction, and studying the specialist vocabularies humans have developed to describe their surroundings. While we have been locked down together in a struggle with morphemes, scientists have been picking a viral code with their skeleton keys, seeking a vaccine. The work is slow; it requires patience.

I wonder what thoughts are locked down in Anna’s mind. Ask me tomorrow, she says whenever she finds something inexpressible. Ask me tomorrow.

– Nancy Campbell


Dark Mountain: Issue 17

The Spring 2020 issue brings together essays. stories, poetry and artwork creating a new culture of restoration.


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