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29th March, 2016

Time Stands Still – blog post by Helen Bendon

The Culture Capital Exchange

© Helen Bendon 2015

Some know Alexandra Palace – or Ally Pally to us locals – as the home of fairs like Stitching and Knitting, or as hosts of snooker and darts championships, or as a music venue for Bjork and Florence. Very few know that between 1915 and 1919 Alexandra Palace became an internment camp to 3,000 German, Austrian and Hungarian civilians living in the UK when WWI broke out. I was first introduced to this little-known history when my friend and Middlesex University colleague Maggie Butt published Ally Pally Prison Camp (2011), a hugely affecting collection of poems combined with the prisoner’s words and paintings.

I was surprised to learn from Maggie’s book that anarchist Rudolf Rocker was among the many Germans interned at Ally Pally as enemy aliens. Rocker, a life-long political activist had been instrumental in abolishing East End sweatshops in the tailors strike just two years before war was declared.

The Alexandra Palace Trust team was very excited at the publication of Maggie’s collection and so we looked at opportunities to work together to develop this book into a collaborative partnership project. It’s been hugely exciting to be working with Ally Pally Trust who has a real commitment to exploring these strands of the Palace and Park’s history as a way of engaging audiences new and old to this important North London site. We put together a HLF bid to map Ally Pally Prison Camp onto the Alexandra Park. The bid was successful and along with some very brilliant colleagues at Middlesex University, I developed an app for Ally Pally called Time Stands Still. The app is an audio experience in which you become a visitor to the camp 100 years ago, a witness to the experiences of the men imprisoned in the People’s Palace. Time Stands Still combines the prisoner’s words with Maggie’s poems and soundscapes. As you move around the park you will hear the experiences of those interned – including Rocker, and the painter George Kenner. As you wander the park, you will also find the wives who visited and the British military that held their husbands and sons.

I think of this work as spatialising history.

It was an incredibly interesting process to map testimony and poetry to physical space – to consider historical accuracy when placing (hi)stories in the park. I sketched maps as I read, that changed and evolved as I got further into the research. For example, the camp was organised by class structure so there were very different experiences of camp life depending on pedigree. I placed the different class ‘battalions’ onto my maps and then the kinds of experiences that occurred started to take shape. As this happened, I was also considering how a contemporary listener would experience these different locations on site at Ally Pally.

The title Time Stands Still is quoted from the memoir of Paul Cohen Portheim (who was interned at Alexandra Palace) which captures the sense of despair so eloquently: “We lost all count, all sensation of time. Time stands still where there is no aim, no object, no sense. There is no time.” This bleakness transcended class divides, the despair took hold. Within these dark parameters, I wanted the listener of Time Stands Still to find the glimmers of hope and laughter, a rumour of an escape tunnel, participating in an exercise drill, a joke at a fellow prisoner, or Maggie’s wonderful ballad of Kurt Engler – are treasures to find.

The app is designed not to be a historical guide, but to explore the variety of voices and experiences of the camp. The process of walking, pausing, listening and reflecting also offer a space for the listener to consider an innovative way of historytelling.

I’m looking forward to introducing the walk on Sunday 17th April as part of Walking the City. In the meantime, here is a little “How to” film about the app and how it works: About the App.

Time Stands Still is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund with support from Middlesex University.

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