In our occasional feature we invite guests to select the six cultural links that might sustain them if, by some mischance, they were forced to spend eternity in a succession of airport departure lounges with only an iPad or similar device for company.
Today’s voyager is Daniel Kalder. He was born in Scotland in 1974. For ten years he lived in the former Soviet Union applying himself to various trades, although he never sold arms or human organs. He currently resides in Texas when not engaged in anti-tourism. He is the author of two critically acclaimed books, Strange Telescopes and Lost Cosmonaut, writes a weekly column for the Russian State News Agency, and contributes to a wide variety of publications both well-known and thoroughly obscure. All of this output he archives at his increasingly labyrinthine website.
As something like 50% of the flights I take are subject to epic delays, and as someone who once spent several long winter days and nights hanging around Abakan airport in Siberia waiting for a heavy fog to lift, I can all too easily imagine a destiny spent trapped in an eternal series of departure lounges. Only please God, don’t make them American airports that blast Wolf Blitzer at you.
In an attempt to keep things fair and balanced I have omitted sites I write for and sites run by friends and associates. These are all online labyrinths (they’d have to be labyrinthine if I only had six to choose from) which I enjoy as a visitor only.
1) English Russia. Most reporting from Russia is tedious guff about gas and oil, mingled with mind-numbingly repetitive Darth Putin/Mini-Me(dvedev) speculation, churned out to order by journalist-automatons. English Russia by contrast contains a vast reserve of wonderful and bizarre material, much of which captures the strange, tragicomic, surreal tone of everyday life in Russia. You can visit Moscow in the 1930s,weird play parks and atomic lighthouses . You can even visit the world’s only wooden skyscraper which I wrote about in my book Strange Telescopes and which has since been destroyed. English Russia gives me lots of ideas for books and articles that would be impossible to fund, given the current dismal financial state of the publishing/journalistic industries. Trapped for all eternity in an airport I would accept that such trips could only ever take place in the imagination, and thus liberated I would visit Russia vicariously, and compose these strange books in my mind.
2) Meades Shrine. I have squandered more time and energy dealing with TV production companies than I like to think about. Once or twice, when things seemed as if they just might be about to happen, I’d panic and wonder how I could resist the pressure to make asinine crap. One night, while searching for an example of non- twee travel programming I stumbled upon the Meades Shrine, a fantastic archive of uncompromising, intellectually dazzling TV shows created by the lugubrious Jonathan Meades. Unlike almost everyone else working in TV, Meades makes no effort to conceal his intelligence and his documentaries are at once revelatory and highly amusing. His hour on the Football Towns of Fife, in one of which I grew up, was hilarious and contained much truth. There are many more documentaries at the shrine I haven’t seen so I think I could while away many hours productively, and then be left with things to ponder afterwards.
3) DGMLive! I first encountered Robert Fripp’s astonishing guitar work on David Bowie’s Heroes album when I was 16 or so, and then more of it on multiple Eno solo albums when I was a student. It took me a bit longer to get into his main group, King Crimson- not until I’d spent many years in Russia was I able to get over my fear of prog, instilled in me by a youthful encounter with Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans and the general anti prog climate of the 80s, 90s and most of the 2000s. However what I value in his website is not so much the Crimson aspect- there are many acts I like just as much – but Fripp’s daily diary which for many years has explored the daily life of a professional musician. I’d recommend Fripp’s accounts of his struggles with the music industry to anyone contemplating a career in any of the arts, not only music. Most days he also posts very pleasant images of his village, which would soothe me when the sterile airport environment started to get me down. And I could download a few of his marvelous ‘soundscape’ guitar concerts with flautist Theo Travis, which can be enjoyed on multiple attention levels.
4) Khronika Turkmenistana. I have a longstanding obsession with Turkmenistan, which I identified as a void of great promise several years before its deranged dictator Turkmenbashi achieved worldwide notoriety. At one point I was deep into preparations for a book on the country: I travelled there and also interviewed lots of exiles in Moscow. Then Turkmenbashi died, rendering much of my research obsolete. The world’s attention may have wandered elsewhere but the country remains a bizarre, giant desert prison for its people. Khronika TM painstakingly details what is going on in there, even though very few people in the West, or anywhere, care. The editors carry a lot of reports from Dashoguz, a city which is one of the grimmest places I have ever visited. My guide was enraged when I told him I planned to walk around the town – he wanted to show me only ancient ruins, not modern ones. I’m not sure this site would make thrilling reading for most people, but I like it. I’d even argue that Turkmenistan has become more surreal since Turkmenbashi’s death as the immense apparatus of his bizarre personality cult was taken over by a dentist of very mediocre intelligence. Trapped in the airport I would continue to dream of my return to Turkmenistan, elaborating upon the book-concept that has grown and mutated since Turkmenbashi’s death and which would now – if I ever wrote it – be a lot better than the aborted version.
5) Bibliodyssey. Is there a better site for visual delight on the Web than Bibliodyssey? If so I haven’t encountered it, although A Journey Round My Skull isn’t bad. Every couple of days the anonymous custodian unearths a cluster of images taken from the archives of one of the world’s museums- perhaps some old manuscripts on the apocalypse, or astronomical charts, or 19th century anatomical drawings. He also provides illuminating commentary. This is a site I love, but whose richness I have barely begun to explore, due to the sheer depth and breadth of material available. It’s a perfect example of something only the Internet can do, and a labyrinth of exceptional beauty. Trapped in the airport I would finally have time to delve deep into the archives, and familiarize myself with one of the best sites on the Web.
6) Internet Archive. I struggled with this last choice. For a while I was going to select the 1911 Encyclopedia project, but ultimately settled on the Internet Archive, which I discovered when an excited friend sent me a link to an audio recording of the death agonies of Jim Jones’ followers at Jonestown (which was at that time riding high in the site’s download charts). I didn’t listen to it, but I did spend a bit of time prowling the site, and always intended to return. The front page announces that the archive provides ‘universal access to all knowledge’; in reality it contains only things that are in the public domain. This means that there is an amazing selection of classic books (over 2 and a half million files available for download), and some concerts by Secret Chiefs 3, a band I like very much – but when it comes to the modern era you are largely left with weird stuff that has – for whatever reason – gone out of copyright. There is thus a bizarre selection of ancient, ephemeral, terrible or just plain odd films, plus lots of uploads of the Grateful Dead in concert. Perhaps I would regret this choice, but only in an eternal airport would I have the time to delve deep into so much alluring strangeness. Delirious, I would scramble my consciousness with repeated viewings of Living and Working in Space, sing along with VD is for Everybody and watch hours of ancient Drive in Cinema ads. And who knows, after a while, perhaps even Attack of the Giant Leeches would start to seem good – the way a reheated Czech fried cheese sandwich does after repeated exposure over the course of a year (trust me on that one). And best of all, the archive is so vast it would last as long as any exile.