glasgow’s secret geometry : the devil’s plantation

Made by the respected scottish filmmaker May Miles Thomas, this website of footage and flash, venn diagram and mappa mundi glaschu, centres on two parallel personalities – Harry Bell and his investigation into glasgow ley lines from the past: and the wanderer/robinsonner placed in the present, Mary Ross.

The narrative follows the true story of Mary (befriended by Thomas), on her excursions through a Glasgow hinterland that has, unknown to her, been carefully studied by Harry in his attempt to discover the nodes of confluence that link one part of glasgow to another. It’s clear that both are seeking meaning – and resolution – via the landscape.

Thomas’ approach on the one hand is a flash-based animation – appropriately, seeing that Bell’s work was all about the context of vectors – forming the starting point of the work, providing navigation and jommetry-maker. At once inscrutably unhelpful (which I quite liked), then door-like, it steps through a non-linear, chance-based journey that perfectly encompasses the serious-yet-fun nature of what I for one is pleased to call psychogeography. This alone would be a notable achievement.

But it is the sidestepping into the present via Mary Ross; mirroring her movements in beautifully-imaged, intense, mise-en-scènes (with a nod to Patrick Keiller); that makes this work remarkable. The 66 locations – all either gratifyingly obscure, like St Convals Chariot and Cochno, or frankly disturbing, like Crookston Castle and its neighbour Leverndale mental hospital (more of which later) – merge into a matrix of lines scribed into the air, unseen above our heads. Kudos to Thomas for filming in areas that most fearty people would run a mile from – some locations are the peacetime equivalent of war reporting, even for ugly burly men like me.

Underlying all this is a sense of loss. Mary’s search for her daughter and a happier future; Harry’s obsessive search in the fathoms of the past. The unasked and unthanked exiled as surely as siberian fisheye eaters, on the fringes; maybe a little-city-glasgow-lost, dismembered after WWII and the ongoing sickness of mackintosh’s rose, a city that lost its final battle at Silverburn…

Returning to Leverndale (Mary’s hospital), anyone who knew of the Milk Crate Gang would have come here, its water tower a lighthouse for naive urbexers like me. Hawkhead Asylum, as it was known originally, was typical of those built by well-intentioned public-spirited Victorians who were affected by the moralising of Dickens but totally unqualified to re-invent Bedlam. The 80s introduction of Care in the Community was the result of this failed institutionalism – not much of an improvement. Coincidentally today I was in the museum of the cumbraes and spotted the 6th earl of glasgow – the owner of the Hawkhead lands – who was bankrupted in 1879 by building too many episcopalian churches.

There are issues. The soundtrack, a bit new-age top-40 in places, only works when it underlines, rather than overstates, the significances of the scenes (the filmmaker has stated that at some point the soundtrack will be replaced with a properly scored final version, however). The graphically well designed flash-based site is sadly poorly optimised, resulting in much jigging about with cursor and constant web access, resulting in a frustratingly sluggish interface – although the movies played reasonably well, albeit not at full resolution. Hope Thomas gets the production agency to sort that out for her. The information given at the end of each scene is illuminating, but not readily accessible – a PDF would perhaps be useful for anyone looking to follow the lines themselves.

However, as a work of ambition, researched and realised with great depth and beauty, the devil’s plantation is the first fully-formed work, I believe, of proper psychogeography ever undertaken in Glasgow. May Miles Thomas has opened Harry Bell’s much-talked-about insights with exactly the right approach, giving life that I think Harry would be delighted in, yet in awe of. It is well worth the 4 hours I sat exploring the piece from beginning to end (how many films would you devote that much time to… you can save the journey at any point and pick up later if you want though).

artists’ statement
My intention was to show how Harry was driven by a quest but Mary had no quest, yet both rely on memory, the past and their own interpretation of it. Mary lives very much in the now, and Harry lives (or lived) with a fascination with the past. I got the sense out in the field that Harry didn’t really focus on the sites themselves, only where they led to, whereas Mary is curious about the most insignificant details of place.

Screenshots from the devil’s plantation

devils plantation

devils plantation end sequence