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Lockdown autoethnography: Part 2

This is the second part of my autoethnography of place during lockdown. A longer read.

Repetitions and resonant moments

Exploring our actions forces us away from the present, and into memory; when we reach a certain point in our psychological archaeology, we find a memory with a resonant quality, a gravity, around which other moments from that time tumble indistinctly, and it is this quality that we are attempting to recreate (for some ineffable reason) via the repetition of a certain action. Why do I recreate meals eaten in Bologna even though that time was traumatic? Perhaps because food was central to sociality in that context, and the moments I remember most fondly are those times I was with others, and when I was with others I would, generally, be eating. I am also just continuing habit. Bologna was not that long ago. In Bath, during quarantine, I would take my breakfast into my room, eat it whilst doing work on my laptop, and then set it down on the carpet. Today, I did the same thing, but I am not in Bath, I am back in Forest Gate. I don’t remember ever doing this before. I became conscious of this action only when I understood how odd it seemed in a different context. It is tiring forming new habits, and a little traumatic. We have to consign the old action to the dusty halls of our memory, for the time being more separate from our present, but this does not preclude us picking that habit back up a time in the future, stumbling back at some moment and banging into it. When we do this, we might feel a heady mixture of sadness and happiness, or some other strong emotions, because the action, formed by a specific moment in a specific place, is resonant. It opens like a sluice gate and a flood of images come back to us, perhaps not making any sense but all the same overwhelming us.

How things look accrues meaning through inherited assumptions of language, or sense-making assumptions. These resonant moments cannot be made sense of in the usual way. They can’t be described prosaically, or with language which classifies. It is not good enough, in these moments, to say; ‘I have put the plate on the floor’, though that is a fact. The assumptions that we inherit from our collective cultures, our families, our language, the places which lie semi-soluble in our past; all these shape the way we look at things when we’re happily or indifferently processing through the trails of routine, and they do so quite successfully. During lockdown, I deconstructed my bed. It was made up of a mattress and two bottom halves. I stood the bottom halves up against one wall, between my chest of drawers and bedside table. I slept with the mattress on the floor, my head beneath the bay windows, and each morning I would drape my sheets over the two bottom halves, place my pillows on top, and stand my mattress up against my full-length sliding mirrors so I wasn’t faced with an image of myself all day. I never really got the hang of this, partly because it wasn’t as simple as making my bed each morning. Essentially, I had to un-make my bed. Some routines are harder to settle into than others.

Looking, unlooking

How did these things look? It is not necessarily appropriate to say that when we are in routine we look. At least, for me it is this way. Routine is an unlooking. This will make sense to those who blindly make it through commute after commute, whose discordant spatial existence requires unlooking, who have suffered trauma that is too painful to look at directly, or who, after a days work (or a wasted day, shuffling about aimlessly), look back and think where did all that time go? Routine is undeniably temporal. The unlooking that is characteristic of routine is also, then, a denial of breaks or pauses which give us a chance to look. But we cannot look all the time. So, routine remains. During lockdown I made several calendars on which me and my housemates scheduled events. In the first month and a half, we stuck fairly well to the events that we had put up. We were all also still attending online lectures and seminars – bar one of my housemates who was (is) doing a PhD – which gave our weeks a kind of regularity. The second half of lockdown, we were a little less disciplined. This, undoubtedly, had to do with many things; with a wish to be around different people, a lack of energy, the passage of time, a need to escape the confines of our house. From my perspective, the unsticking of routine coincided with a general slump, which affected my productivity and my ability to genuinely look at things, to look at things differently. The time at which I had to leave Bath was also approaching.

Naming, writing and significance

Back to names: “In order to write about a place, we have to find a name for it.” (Bate, 2000). Writing things down means giving significance. I could be transported somewhere, somewhere I had never been before, in an alleyway, brick terraces rising either side of me, preventing me from seeing beyond my immediate surroundings. Where am I? I’m in an alleyway. I exit the alleyway, I’m on a strange street. I look at the names of things, I look at the people, I look at how the street is laid out. I look for familiar emblems, symbols. I look for things which fit into my emerging linguistic categories. Naming is forming a connection. It is this sense of connection which reduces our anxiety. When we greet people, if we are not introduced formally, we ask their name. We forget their name and ask them again. We forget their name again, and for some reason are a little embarrassed to ask their name a third time. We feel guilty that this person will see that we perceive them as insignificant. ‘I’m terrible with names.’ Aren’t we all? And what about when we forget the name of a place? When I went on walks around my local area in Bath, I did not know the names of all the fields I walked through, nor the plants within them. These places cannot embarrass me in the same way that people can. I walked along the Trent & Avon Canal, but if I had simply walked along ‘the canal’, how would my relationship with that place change? We cannot help but often think in speech, but places themselves do have a significance which extends beyond being named by us. Our speech cannot describe this significance, not rationally. It requires a certain poetic logic, or a process of acutely personal naming, to reinhabit these places in memory. We are required to imagine an unnamed place, even if we do have the ability to name the parts and components of that place; as a whole, its significance escapes the edges of language.

A brief lockdown description ‘in place’

“A piece of birdsong sounds like a stream running over a rock. A tiny bird flies from the large tree to behind the house next to ours, from the right to the left of my vision. More song, louder, broken into different parts. A lengthy repetition. A pigeon clumsily flies from a small tree above the large sheds. Those rooves have the pattern of corrugated metal but are, in fact, concrete. A pigeon coos. There is the familiar, constant sound of cars, a lazy hush like a distant sea, but it’s barely fifty yards away. Ivy creeps up the wall of the building directly adjacent to our garden. It has a tiled roof, each weathered tile made up of two half-cylinders linked by a flat rectangle, followed by another after the second half-cylinder, the pattern marching right to left. Flip the perspective and so, too, flip the description.”

An analysis

Looking back at this description, I can picture myself sat in the garden, and I can picture some of the details – the building adjacent to our house, the trees – but when I get to the description of the roof tiles, the image becomes stale, collapses. Perhaps some people form images out of detailed description, or equations, numbers, but I cannot. There is a recognition in the clumsiness of my writing that words cannot transfer complete or accurate images of physical objects to the reader. The images that emerge are birthed when the linguistic constructions of the writer metamorphose into imaginary constructions in the mind of the reader. Still, in this instance, I feel that the language is too controlling; even on contact with my own imagination (the imagination of my later self), what emerges as image is a frustrated, rigid construction which cannot bear the burden of pressure wrought by the imagination on images. It is too ready-made, its dimensions too impersonal. Here, I was attempting a more poetic expression of George Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Once you begin, once the whole arrangement is available to you in the form of the world beyond yourself, you realise that in a moment, if you wish to write literally, you can only write about any one given thing, or a few small things, to the exclusion of everything else at that moment. The different images then become linked not via an imaginative disruption of singular temporal categories, but by an erratic temporal zig-zagging which, however uneven its temporal distribution, nonetheless posits a kind of linear movement from image to image. This reveals some of the dangers involved with linguistic representation. In the narrative form this can be overcome by various strategies, which it is not helpful to list here. It is in the poetic form, however, that singular temporal categories are disrupted by an expansive movement outwards from a centre, by images which are often deliberately unreal. Poetry does not make a play at being literal, because as a form it knows that literalism – not to be confused with simplicity – is a failure, a lie. Instead, it seeks to access something we recognise as real through fantastic, strange, esoteric language, even sometimes through the banal which, for the very reason that it is in the poetic form, uncovers strangeness which hovers behind banality. A poetic attachment to place builds the real from the unreal, it enlarges it unrealistically, and in so doing opens up access to place. But we shouldn’t get carried away. Poetic attachments can, if unfettered, spiral away from a material reality which also needs to be paid attention to.

Dynamism, objects and catastrophe

Motion as attractive: on a windy day, the trees move, the buildings don’t (on our scale of spatial-temporal perception). When I sat or stood in my garden in Bath, or looked out of the window, my attention was immediately attracted by the things that moved. The trees, the gulls, people walking by, cars, vans. I remember looking at a painting by Renoir in a gallery in Oxford once. Gust of Wind. It was magnetising. It attracted me because of the movement contained within it. I have been attracted by other things in paintings. Motion is an aspect of beauty. When I fix my eyes on something in motion, following it (a bird in the sky), it is as if I am momentarily hypnotised. In Forest Gate, cars hold many functions; for some they are a way of transporting owners or their loved ones from A to B, for some they are a way of delivering food, or passengers, for others they are a status symbol. Other than the sleek design of a new car, one thing that impresses people – mostly young men – is the power of the engine. The engine is the thing which gives the car movement. If to watch something in motion is a kind of hypnosis, then to be in motion, to be within something that is in motion, this is a kind of magic. During lockdown I was sat in front of my laptop for a substantial proportion of the day. Doesn’t this, too, provide motion? If you move the mouse, type something, play a game; this is a strange fusion of hypnosis/magic. You control the movement, you watch the movement. This is a different kind of movement to that we do with our bodies. It is symbiotic; it is a relationship between our bodies (I tap the keys of the laptop) and the machine (letters appear on the screen).

Even things that are static (nothing is, really, but it doesn’t help to become philosophically technical like this) are animated. Objects we’ve had for a long time are not purely objects when we look at them. The biscuit tin at my house in Forest Gate, for example. It was not originally a biscuit tin. Perhaps this also further animates it. An object whose use-value we’ve stretched. It is a cylindrical tin, coloured mustard yellow, with a slate-grey lid. It used to be a tobacco tin. You can still see the words ‘Old Holborn’ on the front, along with a faded image of a building with a striped Tudor façade. It was a wedding gift to my Dad, who used to smoke roll-ups. It was also an object I returned to again and again as a child, a place of sweetness and treasure. When I look at it now, the suggestive motion of memory makes it spectral, special. I cannot say that any of the objects I had in my house in Bath were suggestive in quite the same way. They were all too young. I tacked photos up on my wall. This has become a sort of routine, too. I put them on my wall in Forest Gate, on my wardrobe in Bologna, and then on my wall in Bath. Sometimes, I would look at one or two, but because there were so many, they each pulled my imagination in different places. Perhaps I should put those images away. The journeys back and forth gave the biscuit tin some of its special aura, it was hidden and then unconcealed, whereas those images I put up are always staring out at me. I didn’t give them that much attention. I did this to make the room feel as though it was mine, to inject the white veins of neutrality – white walls, white furniture – with my own colour.

Catastrophe is once stable things becoming displaced. Place can be thought of as a dialectical relationship between leaving and returning. This can be put in other ways: the urge for freedom, against the need for security; the temptation of exploration, against the desire for comfort; the exciting quality of the new, against the rooted quality of belonging. Catastrophe is, more literally, an overturning, a sudden end. When I leave my house in Forest Gate, I do so with the unspoken understanding that when I return, things will be as they were, the house will not have moved, the objects in the house will be the same. But there does remain some kernel of uncertainty with each act of departure. We must make a leap into the darkness when we act, we must turn away from some things and trust that they will remain behind when we want to turn back. How would I react if I returned to my house and the biscuit tin had disappeared? Re – ‘again, back, anew, against’[1]. Act – ‘to set in motion, drive, drive forward’[2]. There would be a blank space where I would seek to set in motion again my relationship with the object. The blank space might produce a corresponding absence in me. This would be a sort of catastrophe, an overturning, a sudden end, a once stable thing becoming displaced; it would require something new. This is why the loss of home is a catastrophe and can be so debilitating. It requires a whole new way of being.

It is because we have changed in leaving that we want to have a guarantee of returning to some sort of sameness, it gives us a chance to look at it ‘anew’ and reaffirm our relationship to it or, sometimes, reject it entirely. In the latter case, the changes wrought by leaving are so extreme that in return we also experience a kind of catastrophe, only it is now we who cannot react in the same way to those strangely familiar objects, it is we who have been ‘overturned’. Last year, from October to December, I used to cycle to Corsham from Bath, through Batheaston and up Bathford hill, the lactic acid broiling in my legs, my back aching and sweaty. My gears would always skip upwards, so I would constantly have to change down and then wait for the inevitable snap and temporary increase in resistance. I would get to the top at Kingsdown Golf Club and feel weak, ecstatic that for a while I could let gravity take me down the other side. I often unzipped my jacket when I was up there so the wind could cool the moisture against my body. I also cycled to the Newton Park; less of a trek, but with a mildly painful climb up the final approach towards the campus. Practically, it makes, sense to think of repeated, identical actions, yet we never do the same thing twice. Dynamism precludes our ability to grasp things in their totality. When I returned to my house in Bath, there were signs that filled me with warmth (the light on in our little living room), sadness (no lights at all), an odd kind of gentle bitterness (the front door which suggested enclosure, glimpses into my room which seemed so still, lifeless and domestic). What was common to all sensations of leaving on my commute, or coming home to my house, was a mixture of symbolic potentialities and expectations; mostly identical but infused with the possibility of novelty. I must live out my life as a rhythm, serially punctuated by personal and collective catastrophes.

Zooming in, zooming out: loss, perspective, the marks of place and place-markers

What about other objects in other houses? What about lost objects? We are material creatures, living in a material world, to misquote a popstar. Near Forest Gate, there is Stratford, with its strange new village, stadium, artsy ultra-modernist ArcelorMittal Orbit, and giant shopping centre, one of the largest in Europe. It is a temple to objects. I sometimes imagine abandoned shopping centres, crumbling ruins covered by vegetation, being stumbled upon by a future civilisation. Perhaps they would think these were places of worship, sacred spaces where people made offerings to idols and in recompense temporarily adopted their image, their guise. It is a place of promised potential meaning, rather than meaning accumulated through memory. People have different attitudes towards shiny new things. Whenever I used to get a pair of new shoes or an item of clothing, I used to wear them constantly. I wore football boots in the house. I wore baseball caps to bed. We don’t wear places. We cannot attach places to our bodies in the same way as objects and move with them, but places do leave marks on us. Whenever I return to Forest Gate I am struck by the size of my house. My house in Bath was small, there were thresholds that I rarely crossed. Each individual was the keeper of the culture of their room, their private space, sometimes more open, sometimes more private.

I became accustomed to this during lockdown. There were two of us on the ground floor, our doors opened onto a small area, a few feet long by a few feet wide. Our two rooms had obviously once been a single room. You entered the little shared space/place from the hallway (which was not really a hallway), through an empty doorframe. It even had its own bulb, this little place, which is one of the distinguishing features of a place in a house – if it has its own bulb, or a shared set of bulbs, it is somehow discrete. If we opened our bedroom doors, we could see each-other working at our desks, the little no-place between us. It wasn’t large enough to impress me with any strong feeling; its emptiness did not become oppressive. Twice we sat in our doorways and played chess here, but other than that it remained an odd area; not quite a passageway, not a closet with a door, not an alcove, not an ante-room, though perhaps this last moniker describes it best.

A little way up the road, past the allotments, there were a couple of tall bushes and hedges. They were filled with the cries of little birds from early Spring, and each time I walked past I tried to look inside, through the gaps between the leaves, to see if I could spot any. I loved this. A hedge appears solid from a distance, but up close it is all hallways and rooms and stairwells for other creatures. We zoom in and we open up worlds. We zoom out and we enfold little places into larger ones. Going in either direction changes the way we think about and approach places. From Camden road you could look over Bath and the surrounding hills in both directions. I used to run up Wooley Lane and round to Swainswick, taking sideways glances at the valley. At other times I would cut down a little path off Charlcombe Avenue, opposite Wooley Lane, and walk down this before moving into the meadows. In early Spring, alone, I turned onto this path at dusk, and was met with a sea of cow parsley, jutting out from each side of the path. I walked down, stopped, breathed, watched the mixture of shadow and the luminous white coming from the flowers, the boughs of the trees extending above me. It was quite cool, but not cold. I stood there for about ten minutes. I felt very calm, temporarily unburdened of the necessity to act.

In London, there are a few places near to where I live which give this same sense of looseness. Wanstead Flats is one. What is it about this place I enjoy so much? The openness – it is not gated. The impression that the road which runs through it is somehow encroaching. It is isolated, it knows it’s not meant to be there. In the summer I have sometimes pictured the flats as a savannah, the tall grass, mangled shrubs. I associate it with leisure and holidays, with breaks in normality. Travelling through it meant going somewhere far off, or to a friend’s house. It was the first marker on the way to indentured freedom, to holidays; Cornwall, Brittany, the Lake District. It was the final in that series of markers on the return journey, after the holiday, after making music with a close friend, to bed down on my psyche, to impress me with the subdued experience of returning to the comfort of my home. Places mark us, and we also mark places. We enrich them by association. They stand for more than themselves.

14/06/20 – A small wood near Grange Farm, Charlcombe

Fronds

Birdsong

It is damp

The ground is soft

My metal water bottle is on the floor beside me

A crow calls, or cries

Beyond the noise of the birds there is an almost imperceptible whirring, a lower tone, underlying everything

I am sitting on a dead tree, dark brown, black, moss covered in places

There are so many twigs and fallen branches littering the ground, it makes me think of the word ‘litter’, and how in another context it would seem terrible

All these twigs will sink further

My blue jacket is beside me

There is a bit of blue sky and cloud visible, a smattering, like someone’s thrown it up to lay over the background of the branches

A large bee just buzzed past

Bracken

Nettles

Bracken bracken song voice light shadow cry pigeon coo call more pigeon call cool water running somewhere buzz moss lichen earth soil mulch coffee-coloured crumbling branch leaf sun calm snap falling branch

What is that bird call that sounds how a child might imitate a laser gun?


[1] https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=re-&ref=searchbar_searchhint

[2] https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=act&ref=searchbar_searchhint

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