This is the final part of my lockdown autoethnography.
Already being there: absent life and unsettling
Back to abandoned places. Why am I fascinated by ruins, by abandonment? As a child I loved history. For a junior school project, I once made a papier-mâché ship. I was very proud of it. I also wrote little history books and pamphlets. I was fascinated by war. At that age I had a vibrant imagination which didn’t pay much attention to the actuality of death. Why would it? I was a child. Almost everything in the past seemed very cool, and I lacked the ability to distinguish aesthetic quality from reality. There was something magical and other-worldly about seeing Europe’s bomb riddled cities in films. The video games I enjoyed were those whose subject was war. Later, the books I was most fascinated with – David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and various J. G. Ballard novels – were all in some way concerned with ruins, dystopia, catastrophe. I was drawn in by their depiction of otherness, by their possible futures, by the power of their description and creation of place. I did desire narrative but more than that, I was after other worlds. I used to read in that sort of naïve way, in which I became the main characters. When reading about ruins or abandoned places, I could short-circuit the inevitable prior catalysts for abandonment: destitution, lack of resources, poverty, neglect, catastrophe. I was transported, I had circumvented the necessity of going through something; pain, existential crises, crises ‘of the mind’, as Gregory Bateson might put it. These books, like many books, achieved a kind of already-being-there quality. In some small way, this is the kind of thing I experience when I go camping, an already-being-thereness, in ‘nature’, which is easy to go into without having to do all those things my ancestors had to do to survive, and easy to retract from.
Perhaps this is what abandoned places excite. When I say abandoned, I mean places once inhabited by and now absent of humans. The already-being-thereness in abandoned places comes from the reality that those places were once inhabited, alive. A few years ago, when I was visiting my then girlfriend in Tuscany, we snuck-in to an abandoned, dilapidated factory near the village of Fontanella. I think it used to be a sugar mill. It was unnerving, a sad building, cavernous, eerily beautiful. Weeds, wild grasses, shrubs, and trees had punctured through the little sheds. Indomitable ivy stretched up the sides of the factory. I imagined it full of workers, heat, and steam. Would I have got the same sensations if I had visited one of the many ‘cathedrals in the desert’ that accompanied the Cassa del Mezzogiorno (“fund for the south”)? These were public works and infrastructure projects embarked on in the 1950s to stimulate the economy in the less economically developed south of the country and earned the aforementioned epithet because they were often built in the middle of nowhere, and then abandoned. When I was there, standing on a platform overlooking the factory floor, my imagination did expand, but was also fuelled by the knowledge that Fontanella is a poor village, and drug addiction is a big problem.
I think of Morecambe, near Lancaster, where I got my first degree. I didn’t go there very often. Once, when I went with two friends, we got a coffee in an old café. It was like stepping into a time capsule. I was back in the 1950s, or 60s, faux wooden panelling on the walls. We went out and walked along the promenade. It was cold and there weren’t many people about. There was a stretch of blank hoardings along the sea front, vacant land where buildings had once stood and been demolished, gaping holes. A little way behind this there was an entire street of houses boarded up. Abandoned places do still fascinate me, but often, people have to live there and deal with the absences that pockmark their homes. Even in cases of complete abandonment, where the lived connection between humans and place has been severed, any romantic notions must also confront problematic histories of place. Chernobyl has become a surprising haven for wildlife, showcasing the ability of other-than-human entities to flourish in places vacated by humans, and yet the history of this place is one of catastrophe which affected the immediate area as well as a large area of Europe. And what about places left empty but maintained? Or a house recently vacated? In my area of London there is a paucity of social housing (there is across the whole country). Many are renting. In the rental sector places are more frequently vacated and reinhabited. The rental sector is a mannequin sector. Rooms strike a living pose but are only shapes for different clothes. It is a sector which propagates a condition of permanent unsettling.
25/06/2020 – At my desk, in my room
Glass of water
Pack of tobacco, golden virginia
Marks on the slide-out part of the desk where the side of my hand has rubbed against the page as I write, picking up ink which it has then smeared on the desk
A torn page of a leaflet I’ve been using for roach paper, two notebooks and various pages and bits of paper stacked beneath this. This on my left, another black notebook on my right
It is 18:40
The teaspoon is on top of the black notebook, just beside it there is a pen
The Poetics of Space resting open on page 51
A pile of tissues
My wallet on top of a pot of hair wax
Underneath the tobacco a pack of pens, below which The Song of the Eath, below which a small sketchbook and a spliff (unsmoked)
A pencil sharpener
It is 18:48
I use the bottom half of an old 2 litre bottle to hold pens, bookmarks, combs, a bottle-opener, a toothbrush
Mottled white wall
My wicker basket
A framed cubist collage of Bologna painted by my mum and given to me as a gift
On the windowsill there is a pinecone twice the size of my clenched fist; a pot filled with spent matches and some burnt cigarette ends
My windows are open, apart from the smaller one at the top
It is 18:53“
Time and identity
If space is temporal, place somehow anchors time. Here, it makes no sense for me to think of time as progressing forward. Time swells outwards, it is an expanse which moves outwards from a centre, it is all around. Today is a slow day. I write this in my dining room. My mum once bought my dad an old ticking clock for his birthday. They are attached to old objects. I am tired and my head feels heavy, foggy, as though I cannot really conceive of much else beyond my immediate surroundings, and yet it is not an immediacy I feel, but a sort of myopia. I am lethargic, anxious. I become excessively analytical because the fogginess is making doubt, which is always there, thicker. I write too much. I use too many words. When I move from one task to the next, it really feels like I am crossing an edge, a threshold. I can only cope with a place being so large. My experience in time is so shrunk that I lack the ability to form a single coherent edge which binds my day together, which acts as an extended membrane for countless possible futures. I can barely think one step ahead. I came back to this writing a couple of days later and re-wrote it. A slow day, a heavy day, is one in which time’s extent – personal time – is oppressively reduced. On that day I felt a bit hopeless. A fast day, a light day, is one in which time’s extent feels infinite. On these days I, generally, feel hopeful.
Place, like identity, is an ongoing project, now contested, sometimes stable, but never ossified. It is not possible to create a single place which pleases everyone. Utopia is nowhere. Is it possible to create more intersubjective places? Places which engage people’s subjectivity. This is not the same as a place in which people can ‘be themselves’, but it might be a place in which people can engage an aspect of their subjective being. In Bologna, I was without a job for a long time. I had few friends I could speak to, except one. I deeply treasure her. She kept me afloat. I often went for walks through the city or sat in my apartment drinking red wine and smoking weed or gave myself up to my laptop. I oscillated between the seductive pleasure of anonymity, and the distilled existential terror of being alone. I was certainly a little hopeless. When I was wandering through the piazzas, beneath the porticoes, sitting in cafes writing poetry, I was unknown, unsettled, bored at times, but lost enough in the romance of my situation to get by. The defence of my imagination drew up boundaries, created a cocoon which often burst on impact with reality.
Each day I felt like I was reconstructing my identity anew, and at the end of each day I would feel like a ruin. Some of the most traumatic moments were just after friends or family had come to visit me. They brought a little bit of home with them, and after they had left, I felt the reality of all that absence, I felt all the space between me and where I wanted to be. I felt displaced. The places I have been remain in me partly because they are unresolved, and because they are unresolved, they often beckon me back. I know it would take a lot for me to come sort of temporary resolution with Bologna, an understanding between me and the place, but I am still drawn to it. I would like to return, at some point, to feel strange and unsettled and nostalgic and glad to be where I am.