Lockdown autoethnography: Part 1

This is an extended version of an autoethnography I submitted as part of my post-grad dissertation, exploring and describing my relationship to place.

Author’s note

This autoethnography was compiled from reflections, memoir, notes, writing exercises, poetry, and more general ideas about place. It was written in Bath and Forest Gate during the Covid-19 lockdown. Whilst it is supposed to reflect my own experience of lockdown, I did not wish to continually force myself to return to this topic, as I felt this would be somewhat artificial and detract from my actual lived experience. It is not a narrative, as such, because it shifts chronologically, and some parts written in Forest Gate have been placed before those written in Bath. Some passages were written in the moment and have remained relatively unchanged. Some were edited and rewritten. Others were written as explanations or additions to previous passages. It was not my goal, when I set out, to come to any distinct or firm conclusions. I wanted to explore my own relationship to place in writing during lockdown. This project, I would like to stress, is limited. The time I spent thinking and writing about place varied from day to day. Sometimes I did not write at all for a few days. The resulting piece of work is unsettled, and may appear structured in a strange way, with gaps, jumps, and isolated passages. I would say this gives an impression of who I am, where I was, how I navigated my experiences then, and how I do so generally. I hope it can stimulate the reader to think about place a little differently.

A journey through language: from Bath to Bologna, via Forest Gate

The cut down tree in the back garden. I wondered who had cut it down. Probably the handyman, the same one who came to check our electrical appliances and change the toilet seat. Our next-door neighbours in Forest Gate once coppiced their tree terribly, cutting off too many lower branches. In Bologna, there was a fig tree which leant over the cassonetti – the bins where people from the apartment blocks dumped their rubbish. I lived on the ground floor, the only one with a terrace, which looked over the car park, a single railway track, beyond which a field and two or three (I can’t remember exactly how many) apartment blocks. The field was flanked, on its right-hand side, by a road. To the right of this road there was what looked like a disused factory, and then further into the distance a few construction sites – newer condominiums surrounded by dust, bricks, girders, and vehicles.

I lived on Via Massarenti, fuori le mura – outside the walls – a phrase which popped up constantly on Facebook pages and rental sites where people searched for accommodation. It was a strange coincidence that if I compared a map of London with a map of Bologna, my dwelling occupied roughly the same spot. It is the same in Bath. I am seemingly oriented north-east, a little way outside of the centre of things, in each of the cities I have lived since I first graduated. To repeat, a coincidence. Yet, coincidences can become infused with meaning. It is a way of endowing happenstance with value. In Bologna my garden was the terracotta-tiled terrace. I once found the back of an old TV, about a foot and a half deep by two and a half feet wide. I carried it home, filled it with soil, and planted parsley, basil and thyme. I also bought two other plants which fell over every time there was a thunderstorm, which there were infrequently.

Because of Bologna’s geographical position, in the shallow part of a broad valley, sandwiched between the mountains and the sea, it experiences a variation of weather. In winter it is several degrees colder than London. When I arrived in January from a damp, chilly England, there was a frozen covering of snow across much of the city. In late winter and early spring, it rains. Bologna is maligned by people from the south of Italy who are used to fewer clouds. In mid to late Spring there are the storms, and in summer the city swelters, everyone who can goes to the sea, or back to their family homes. Here, in Bath, there were two and half weeks of near constant sunshine in May. I got up early, made myself breakfast, and used to sit in the garden as the sun slowly arced across the blue, the shadow of the house creeping over the pebbles.

‘Nature is not yet what it appears to be’ – Theodor Adorno

Naming things, marginality and routine

The wall showing the urge of organic things whilst being conventionally or functionally lifeless. There are blotches of lichen on our garden wall. Beyond there is a little sloping patch of nettles, grasses, and wildflowers. There were daisies, daffodils, and forget-me-nots earlier in spring, now there are buttercups and a white flower that is either a daffodil, periwinkle, or petunia. Beyond this there are a clump of trees, sycamores, I think. Younger ones closer to the house, and a giant parent that turned from bare to leafy in a week at some point in April or May. I have, perhaps, spent more time in this garden than I would have if lockdown hadn’t been in place. The garden itself is not much to look at. It is filled with pebbles and stones on top of a synthetic black sheet which shows in places where the stones have shifted or been kicked away. There is a prefab concrete wall, half painted white, which separates us from our neighbours lower down. At one point we climbed over the fence to collect firewood for our broken chimenea and found a long-dead, creamy-grey coloured branch, beautiful and smooth. My housemate shook the bugs out of the crevices. For around a month and half now it has hung from our living room ceiling; our living room, which is a glass conservatory attached to the side of the house. Freezing in winter, it heats up unbearably under the glare of the sun.

We collected nettles for soup, just the once. My housemates also picked flowers and brought them back home to arrange in old jars. It has struck me several times that it is a shame I barely know the names of any flowers. It is a sort of fabricated nostalgia, because when I think of all the things I look at – bushes, trees, flowers, grasses, shrubs, weeds – and cannot name, I imagine a time when more people could name them, when the stock of local names was greater. Or I imagine being from somewhere rural, where I’ve grown up and known the names of things because they’ve been part of my environment. If you know the names of things now, I think, you’re either a naturalist, ecologist, biologist or a gardener. Even then, if you’re an ecologist or biologist, your knowledge might be curtailed by disciplinary boundaries. I assume – I like to assume – that because I grew up in London, I found no use for this lexicon, because I have been spatially and socially conditioned to concentrate on other things. I blame urbanisation for the absence of these words, and it is true that some words have been omitted from newer versions of the Oxford English Dictionary to make way for acronyms that first found use on the internet, on social media. Language changes, some words slip away, and this makes us a little more impoverished in some ways.

But is this lament necessary? Isn’t this lament, in fact, a silly, privileged romanticism? I am creating these possible other worlds in my imagination. It is not necessarily like this. There are trees in the city that I have looked at and not thought to learn. Plants too. Isn’t this preoccupation with naming things merely a certain kind of writer’s desire for knowledge? There are billions of bricks in the city. I cannot tell you where a single one comes from. There are parts of my house I cannot name. The sliding mirrors which conceal storage space, for example. Surely, there is another name for this? Our language is shaped by the worlds we live in. Does that give me part of an answer to the mild irritation I feel when unable to name something? I live in many intersecting worlds. I cannot know all there is to know about each of them. How would naming things change my relationship with those things? It would give me further access to a particular world. Learning Linnaean taxonomy would allow me to enter more deeply into a realm that I have continuously hovered on the edges of. Why have I not chosen to do this already? Why have I chosen (or been forced) to remain marginal?

Perhaps this has been and continues to be largely out of my control. Whenever I went on holiday as a child, I went to the Lake District, to Devon, to Cornwall, to Brittany, Normandy, Northumberland (once, it rained constantly). These trips continually moved me from the urban to what would simply be called the natural. This, certainly, might have something to do with my marginality. But isn’t marginality common to virtually everyone? If you belong to more than one world, marginality is present. In the now, people, especially city dwellers, live in multiple worlds. The contemporary experience is one of extreme marginality. Even the majority who would consider themselves part of mainstream culture, who would think of the concept of ‘marginality’ as some intellectual invention, distant from the reality of everyday work; even these people are in some ways marginal. Perhaps marginality is tempered by routine, by identical movement which becomes, for want of a better word, mechanistic, which digs deep tracks in the mesh. Eat, work, eat, gym, sleep, eat, work, eat, gym, sleep. These – marginality and routine – are not necessarily opposing forces, but mutual. No-one would doubt the efficacy of routine in settling chaos; even if this happens to be something psychological or artificial, a way of painting over the chaos which remains. Routine cannot be completely escaped from; there are repetitions, cycles that we cannot transcend.

Travelling back, learning to begin again

I travelled back to London yesterday. Each movement to another place, even if it is one you’ve already lived in, dwelt in, requires new orientation. There is a truth in the pain of return to familiar places. It is a pain that will not last, like all pain. If I chose to stay here, eventually I would settle into a rhythm, a routine, a mixture of how I had lived and how I live (in this hypothetical state). In the present, it feels almost incorrect to be here – I use that word because ‘wrong’ has too much darkness associated with it, and it is not exactly darkness I feel, though there is a darkness there. What I mean is that I have learnt Bath, specifically, whilst lockdown has been going on, I have learnt Larkhall and Camden, Hedgemead Park, the canal, Swainswick, Wooley, Grange farm, the little wooded area, the bats that fly in the fuzzy twilight of evening. I have learnt my room there, at 62 Upper East Hayes. I have learnt ways to move around the house, from the kitchen to the living-room-cum-greenhouse, from my room to the bathroom, from the hallway to the back garden. Most people cannot help living out a certain spatial clumsiness when they move to a new place. I do not mean that people walk into doors, knock mugs off tables, whack heads on extractor fans that really shouldn’t be there, though this happens, too. I mean there is a sort of bumpy, chaotic freedom to being in a new place, which encourages mistakes unless an individual happens to be particularly cautious, lucky, or adept at settling in.

Now I am in Forest Gate, a place which is achingly familiar to me, but the learnt actions of my extended present are fizzling out at the edge of my skin, they are passing through that porous membrane into a world which is not for them. This is the pain of return: being somewhere I know intimately, and not knowing how to act or, rather, feeling an urge to perform actions that are meant for elsewhere. It is the same when you meet someone you haven’t met for a while, though there are sometimes exceptions. You feel a tautness between how you were with that person, and how you are now. The exceptions happen when by some fluke you each have navigated similar, separate trails, or you have navigated different trails, but have interpreted them similarly. It is exhausting. I am returned in body. I am not returned in action.

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