Contact made wet on dry dark on light like a procession of archetypes. One approaches to step into the mist of another, one lingers like a puddle or a stutter.
On the move
When I was young, I was constantly on the move, like many children who clamber, climb, crawl and run about, getting used to the brilliance of their bodies. As I’ve aged (though I’m not that old), I’ve given less time to carefree motion, and focused more on other things, things that either require comparatively little movement or movement that is largely functional. The day I started this piece, I cycled to a hospital appointment, to a café to do some work, and then to see my physio, who is helping me recover from a medial collateral knee ligament sprain. Each of these stages of motion were buffered by extended periods of sitting, and tapping away at the keys on my laptop, or reading my book. This dividing up and slowing down is also partly down to biology. Our metabolisms and cell-regeneration slow as we get older, joints freeze. We get more niggles and injuries that erode the firmly held confidence we once had in our bodies. However, there is also a sense that we have increasingly designed an absence or compartmentalisation of movement into the structures that govern our lives.
This design has not always been deliberate, but humans have generally found that compartmentalisation and its relatives – specialisation and standardisation – are reasonably good at increasing task efficiency or keeping out the unwanted stuff. A clay tablet letter dated 539 BCE from a Babylonian to the king of Persia attests to the existence of a place separate from the pollution of the city centre, what we might now call suburbia: “Our property seems to me the most beautiful in the world. It is so close to Babylon that we enjoy all the advantages of the city, and yet when we come home, we stay away from all the noise and dust.” More recently, as part of the process of industrialisation, standardisation of movement was housed within specific spatial structures, aided by machines that had no need for the monotony of repetition to be softened by access to other freedoms. There are similarities and differences we can identify with different time periods, but the key commonality for me is that different types of separation offer us a window onto our relationships with the world, by revealing how we organise our societies. From the agrarian to the industrial revolution, these changes symbolised fundamental alterations to how we perceived and arranged things, and thus how we lived as individuals, societies, and as a species.
Permanent cultural revolution
The cultural theorist Stuart Hall once claimed in the 90s that, culturally speaking, we are in a state of ‘permanent revolution.’ He was speaking at once from a personal perspective, being of mixed heritage, and more generally about the movements from place to place that formed the basis for contemporary culture, in addition to the societies that had come into being because of forced transit from one place to another – from Africa to the Caribbean and South America – and the brutal displacement of indigenous peoples. It is still possible to trace Anglo and Eurocentric influence (mainly from the US and UK, but also France and Spain) in global cultural patterns; the political infrastructure inherited from colonial regimes, the relative prestige of US brands in a global economy, the invisible lines bisecting continents drawn by men from a different era. However, the world is increasingly multipolar, both culturally and geopolitically, and whilst its edges sometimes continue to be redrawn and transgressed at the behest of tyrants, they are also collectively negotiated.
In the context of culture, some might say it has always been multipolar. Culture is simply defined as the social behaviours and norms found in human societies. In my eyes, it means the many ways in which people interact – with each other, with objects, animals, plants, the world – and the structures that guide those interactions. The present and the historical record offer examples of profound cultural diversity across the globe – Philipe Descola’s The Spears of Twilight is an excellent ethnographic account of the culture of the Amazonian Achuar people, in which dreams and visions have played a central role in cultural formation. The Japanese reputation for pacifism, whilst linked to Shinto Buddhism, may be in part down to a constitution written by idealistic Americans who sought to neutralise Japan’s ability to wage war in the future. The former culture challenges the notion of an opposition between itself and nature, its composition so intimately affected by the rhythms of the jungle, whilst the latter appears to be an outcome of a peculiarly violent interaction between two heavily mechanised and militaristic forces.
Pluralism, universality and new spaces of interaction
Culture, in this light, is an emergent phenomenon, the result of interactions between people (and objects, animals, plants, the world) within a specific environment, the borders of which become more clearly defined as a result of these interactions. These environments can be large or small, and they can contain within them distinct places in which subcultures emerge. Cities contain many sub-cultures and enclaves of cultural homogeneity, whilst often maintaining heterogenous characters. Bristol, for example, has its Caribbean communities centred around St Paul’s and there are pockets of white working-class culture in places like Knowle and Hengrove. Clifton is conspicuously affluent, Gloucester Road is thronged with students, and Bedminster – like many parts of the city – is in transition, its poorer residents displaced by wealthy newcomers.
When you begin to dig deep down, you find that most cultures are heterogenous. Which begs the question: What makes a Bristolian a Bristolian, a Londoner a Londoner, or a Parisian a Parisian? In the world of urban branding, marketing strategies are devised which play upon the heterogeneity of these cities, somehow reinforcing the strength of a particular place’s identity through a simple juxtaposition of bewildering pluralism and symbolic universality. It is a conceptual flip that positions diversity as central to the emergence of a particular place and its culture. To use an old cliché; people, cultures and places are in constant flux. Yet, there are narratives streaking this instability, fault lines of convergence, invisible currents that have shaped and continue to shape the spirit of places. These narratives are contested. They are added to when the culture of one place interacts with that of another, for example, the murderous mercantilism of British slavers and the places, and cultures of eighteenth-century Africa. Culture, just like its symbolic objects, is portable, rather than static, and places attach themselves to us just as we become attached to them.
Generational change also engenders shifts. New perspectives are created that more clearly take note of the paradoxes of the cultural landscape. In the decades following the second world war, there were successive challenges to a kind of deferential, colonial British culture that justified and upheld acquiescence to the wisdom of certain leaders. New cultures of defiance and resistance emerged that were joyous, rebellious, and critical, from Punk with its chaotic, visceral flamboyance, to Rastafarianism with its roots in Afrocentric spiritualism. Perhaps these cultures of resistance were given fertile ground on which to grow by the obliteration of the promise of modernism and the hubristic belief of its adherents in the power of mechanised industry to bring about collective good. Two world wars threw this into sharp relief. Modernism, deference, and racist nationalism had each occupied different overlapping cultural realms, exercising power over followers and non-followers. With the war and their eventual collapse, gaps appeared.
By claiming a ‘permanent cultural revolution’, Hall may well have been drawing attention to the fact that these gaps provided the spaces in which different interactions could and did occur, and many (though not all) of the most important sites of contest were in cities. The urban space encouraged human interaction. It was a space in which ideas could germinate (and occasionally ferment) and areas be occupied, acting as the foundation for individual expression and collective autonomy. In Europe and the US, 1968 was, perhaps, the apogee of this post-war resistance, with uprisings in Prague and Paris, the civil rights movement in full swing and anti-Vietnam-war marches in the US and elsewhere. This came at the end of two decades in which a whole slew of former colonies in Africa and elsewhere gained independence, changing the geopolitical make-up of the globe.
Nature, culture, and the collapse of stable categories
I write about cities because I was brought up in one, but some of my most distinct memories from childhood involve running up mountains, leaping over waves by the sea, wriggling out of my sleeping bag and hearing the kettle whistling on the camping stove. We – I speak as a Westerner, but I think this holds for some other cultures – can’t seem to help but think in terms of dualisms and categories. It simplifies things and is embedded in our attitudes towards the world. There is no question that my experiences camping in Normandy, seeing the dew roll off the Cabanon tent, were very different from my experiences of summer in London, and not only because I was on holiday, away from home. Nature and culture, natural and artificial, the city and the country. This has been my way of speaking about and conceiving of the difference between places. ‘Nature’ is a particularly powerful sign, as is ‘culture’, but like cities, these signs encapsulate an unquantifiable degree of difference which breaches both conceptual and physical boundaries. That is why I am so fascinated by edges, by contact and porosity, by the ways in which apparently stable entities collapse into one another.
Our linguistic structures allow us to easily understand and communicate with one another. The physical structures we inherit and create separate and package certain associations and actions. We have offices in which we work, gyms in which we work out, shopping centres (or malls) in which we shop, synagogues, mosques, temples, and churches in which we pray, schools in which we study. All these places can be said to contain their own culture, and I want to bring together the humanistic and biological understanding of this term, because all these places are to varying extents ‘mediums’ where cultivated action occurs. Actions that appear to upend notions of ‘correct’ behaviour are discouraged. Yet, these structures and institutions are only fragile segments of the continuum of our experience, just as words are not the limit of our vocal capacities. When these are challenged – by novelty, by distraction, by pandemics, by war, by climatic and ecological crises – our ability to orient ourselves is also challenged, and sometimes completely lost. From this point we often search for a way to recreate those lost conditions, ignoring the fact that this loss, whilst not insurmountable, is not recoverable.
Challenging the value of efficiency: How do we orient ourselves in the world?
Movement – of one kind or another – is essential to our ability to orient ourselves, and our movement is shaped by our values. These values have contributed to the construction of the places in which we live. A key value that has defined human movement for centuries is efficiency. It underpinned the industrial revolution. Some would say it is a biological or evolutionary imperative, a survival instinct, as much as a co-constructed value. At various scales and in various contexts it is how we measure success: How can we use the smallest amount of energy or resources to produce the most effective result? Whilst the uneven development of urban areas has had unequal outcomes – from beautiful structural oddities to the sprawl of uncoordinated DIY settlements subsequently destroyed in slum clearances – efficiency has been a central (though not universal) feature of this, interpreted and practiced differently. Perhaps because of its centrality to the way we currently live, it is almost sacrilege to challenge efficiency – especially when there are growing stresses on scarce resources – but that is exactly what I want to do. I do not want to do this in order to dispense with it, but to draw attention to how this value governs our thoughts, actions, and relations, how it informs the way we orient ourselves in the world, its changing shape over time.
How can efficiency be combined with movements that reinforce our sense of connection to each other, animals, plants, and the world? This question attains greater resonance when you consider that increasing efficiency is often an attempt to curtail ‘unnecessary’ waste, or loss. I am no fan of waste, having been steeped in utilitarian logic from a young age, but maybe we need to reorient ourselves in relation to loss and waste, both collectively and as individuals, especially in the context of a capitalistic efficiency that cannot be disentangled from increasing and unsustainable levels of consumption. Whilst efficiency is meant to reduce waste, it often increases consumption. Perhaps, efficiency – separated from the other values that motivate us – pushes us to leap from place to place, from position to position, without allowing us to navigate the routes via which we leave and arrive, the edges and border zones of our continual experience, increasing our sense of disconnection. We are continually distanced from the things which allow us to occupy the positions we do.
Walking and connecting our atmospheres of separation
I once had a conversation with a colleague who said their friend thought that some – though clearly not all – people in Bristol travelled by car because they believed their destinations were further away than they were. When it would take 15 minutes to walk somewhere, people instead spent longer getting in their cars, navigating one-way systems, sitting stationary at traffic lights, and trying to find parking spaces. There is a psychological paradox at work here. Perhaps, the choice to travel by car – even urban distances that are more easily walkable – is made because of the associations we have with the vehicle. Think how often adverts show motorists breezing through empty towns, or along isolated roads in the country. People feel freer making certain choices, even when they are not, though of course there are other reasons why they’d choose to drive instead of another form of transport.
Travelling in this way also excludes the grounding and connecting experience of walking, in which the links between places are more tangibly traced. No wonder many cities have made their centres car-free. Doubtless zoning, which saw the urban space split up into parts reserved for different things (industry, leisure, residence), has contributed to an atmosphere of separation, along with the occasional maze-like quality of cities in which geographically proximate locations are separated by rivers, major roads, railway lines, or large constructions around which weave an elongated network of streets and alleyways. I bring up these examples because they articulate the ways in which efficiency and the city segment our experience (sometimes to the detriment of both), parcelling it up in the shape of a grid. Days, weeks, and months go by as we shift through pieces of time and space, or slow as we dissolve the edges between our activities and try to occupy a position that might feel uncomfortable, odd, and occasionally soothing, in contrast to the simplicity of prefabricated structures.
Thrown into things, moving towards each other
When thrown into or against this, it is often difficult to know where we fit in. We carve out our own spaces and discover, as Hall argues, that there is power in ‘mobilising’ behind an identity, drawing in others who also feel disenfranchised by society’s structures. Whatever that feeling may be based on, it is rarely disingenuous. This is the flavour of that permanent cultural revolution alluded to by Hall; a process that has been accelerated by the internet and digital connectivity, which facilitates the occupation of an amorphous space defined by pages, hyperlinks, clicks, likes, exposure. As the pandemic forced homes to become workspaces, gyms, shops, and venues, this further complicated our spatial relationships, the internet’s enervating fluidity seeping into quotidian experience. Working from home, especially, is a poisonous luxury. The deliberate construction of alternative spaces and the disorienting seepage of amorphous space and time into a previously clearly defined world provides – in the language of consultancy – an opportunity, a chance to challenge the injustices of previous systems. However, at the same time we should not forget that we do not just throw off the past. We inherit it, it seeps into the present, like so many microplastic particles. Despite Francis Fukuyama’s assertion, which seems increasingly odd, there has not been an ‘end of history.’ The third industrial revolution has as much likelihood of reproducing and magnifying current divisions, as it has of overcoming them.
What, then, can be done to challenge efficiency? How can we reclaim time that has been divided into parts and crammed into this logic? How can this reclamation be open and inviting to all, rather than available predominantly to those who come from positions of privilege? I do not have the answers to these questions, but I do think we can ask them of ourselves and the organisations or institutions we belong to. They involve trying to better understand the spectrum of our experience and overcoming the dissonance in reconciling apparently opposing categories, like culture and nature, us and them. Though it is tempting to fall into, I think we should avoid over-simplistic narratives of oneness. Admitting the distinctness of individuals and individual objects does not throw up unsurpassable borders between us. Distinctness is a quality maintained by its position on a continuum, and connection is experienced by two or more distinctthings that relate to each other and, in this relation, share properties. Whilst I am distinct from you, we are both a member of the human species. We occupy different positions on this continuum, but we can move towards each other.
Movement is key in all of this. It is our ability to move – to access forms of movement – that helps us form relationships and create shared understandings. There is movement in all forms of communication: in speech, in dance, in emails. Movement from place to place has formed my own character. I would not listen to as much Fabrizio De Andre if I hadn’t lived in Bologna for seven months. On a more general and historic level, various peoples and animals are conscious – in divergent ways – of the role of movement in surviving and flourishing, whether this be literal or structural. In both major pieces of research I have completed, movement – specifically walking – has been an explicit, important part of my methodology. This, admittedly, is not the most efficient methodological approach, and substantially blurs the lines between researcher and research topic, between controlled research space and the chaotic world. I grew a little tired of the comparison with Steve Jobs’ walking meetings, probably revealing my own unease at merely parroting a figure whom I have no great affinity with. We both walk, but from different positions, and for different reasons.
 He has now reversed his position, History is back on.
This will be a journey of leaps, of steppingstones. It might be best interpreted as a way of thinking, a model which might imprint odd images onto the general structures that help us see the world. Ready?
The graveyard of ambition. Where dreams go to die. These sayings stick in some people’s minds when they think of Bath. They remind me in an oblique way of a famous saying attributed to Goethe (or a magician and healer named Raziella depending on which fable you believe): Vedi Napoli e poi muori. See Naples and then die. The dominant interpretation of the quote is that once you have seen Naples – a city which can offer you everything – you don’t need to see anything else. There are similarities between the sayings, though those about Bath are stated more with derision or, at best, neutrality. Vedi Napoli e poi muori, is positive in origin, but though to many ‘The graveyard of ambition’ appears negative, it feels as if it contains much of the same material as that other saying. It is as if it has come from a shared perspective. The word ‘ambition’ has its roots in the Proto-Indo-European ‘ambhi’ (around) and ‘ei’ (go), and features in Latin as ambitionem, “a going around (…) a striving for favor (sic), courting, flattery; a desire for honor (sic), thirst for popularity.” So, etymologically speaking, Bath is the place where ‘going around’ comes to an end.
There are other aspects of Bath which quite neatly fit into these epithets. For centuries the waters at Bath have been imbued with healing properties, so the sick and infirm – those who quite literally struggled to go around – would come in the hope of getting better. Until 1976, as part of NHS treatment, you could be prescribed a dip in the waters at Bath. The city is a mixture of recreation and healing, of pleasure and spirituality. History is hard to shake off, it seems. However, things have also changed markedly since Goethe arrived in Naples and the Stuarts and Georgians transformed Bath with that distinctive oolitic limestone. Naples has become infamous for its poor and corrupt waste management – though it is a beautiful place, and I love it. Behind Bath’s honeyed facades there are a burgeoning number of tech freelancers. Tracing and making sense of these patterns of change is an overwhelming task. Sometimes I see this practice as similar to bone reading: gather data and then scatter them, looking for patterns that reveal something about the future. I tread a provocative path between rigorous research and esoteric divination, shifting positions, verging from naïve mysticism to austere clarity. It is through this slightly disorientating experience that I come to temporary conclusions.
These temporary conclusions are often like being in many places at once, or standing at busy intersections, where the Bath of the past is jammed next to the Bath of the present, and this to my personal experience, alongside GVA figures from creative industry mapping exercises, and charts that make me groan internally. Hailie Selassie steps out of a Maybach W 5 and bumps into Jane Austen, who was until that point deep in conversation with two creative technologists, one working at The Guild, the other at The Studio. Students tumble out from Moles. Fake snow for a film shoot falls like forest fire ash near Parade Gardens. A 19th century worker from the Bath Gas Light & Coke Co. looks at me as I walk down along Walcot Street, passing The Bell, seeing the Hilton Hotel and The Podium dissolve into translucent pixels. Front-facing, this city is a bit like a gallery curated for visitors. It both calms and enchants, much like Naples did to those on The Grand Tour. However, go behind Pulteney Bridge or The Royal Crescent and you’ll see the jumbled quality of the buildings, where contractors were allowed to do what they liked at the rear, as long as the front had a uniform quality. There is a tension between the image and the messy things that sustain it, a tension that is not unique to Bath, but that perhaps shows up with greater resolution because the image has been so curated.
Curating a jumble is a loose work of identity creation, like giving something, or someone, a name, sandwiching a bunch of relations within a sense-making frame. An identity is so often composed of contradictory information, appearing to be one thing, whilst being so many others. The tension and communication between what something is and what it appears to be is a bit like that between the sciences of ecology and economy, both important to this research. ‘Ecology’ comes from the Greek roots oikos (“house”, or the “basic unit of society”) and logia (“study of”), whereas ‘economy’, whilst sharing one root, mixes this with nomos (“law” or “custom”). It is not only etymologically that these two terms share something in common, where there is tension and communication. There is a reasonably extensive history of people using ecology to justify ways of organising society, and these haven’t all been benign. I like to distinguish the two (to curate their jumbles) like this: Ecology = knowledge of home. Economy = management of home. You could say that you cannot manage what you do not properly know (let’s ignore epistemology (how we know what we know) for now). First, to communicate what you know you must express yourself, name things, curate jumbles. This curation is always a mixture of internal and external, and so it collapses a barrier between the two, makes the distinction irrelevant. It allows me to mix up – as in, mix together – Naples and Bath, and here we come to compost.
Compost. Composite. Composition. From the Latin com “with, together” and ponere “to place”. To place together, to mix together. This piece is a bit of an odd mixture, a tableaux or mosaic formed of different ideas, and written in different ways. You might have noticed rhythmic lyricism followed by a kind of hesitant, more critical essay style. In a sense, this reflects my contemporary experience, an experience which is defined by complex blends of things. It is a response to this complexity, and so has required the usage of many voices to translate this into an expression, something communicable. Whilst as many voices as possible enter the conversation about Bath in order to communicate its complexities, perhaps we can begin to think of this place as a sort of compost for the dream city.
I bite my nails. I try to be surreptitious when I do this in public but holed up for months under lockdown there was no need to disguise my bad habits. I wrote my dissertation partly about this experience. Much of it was concerned with the identity of places and people. I felt like I was constantly jumping between scales. I envisaged identity as concentric, spreading out from the acutely personal to the familial, local, national, global – now, I think of the image of a root cross-section. I would remember things like faking illness to get out of primary school, and then turn into thinking about what sort of role the shift at the end of the last glacial maximum played in the formation of East London. Hopping from thought to thought, occupying individual tiles in the mosaic of my conscious identity, this movement sometimes easily traceable, at other times opaque or disorientating, like falling through space.
Remembrance sometimes gives us this falling experience – falling through ourselves – and the internet brings distant things close. Getting stuck in memory can induce feelings of nostalgia; a painful longing for home. Getting stuck on the web can induce a sort of schizophrenic disorientation. It is difficult to outline the qualitative difference between these sorts of experiences which play with distance, and experiences in which we are more – for want of a better word – present. The difference is difficult to describe. Think of zoom calls, which many of us have had our fair share of in the past two years or so. Some people feel more comfortable meeting virtually, but the point is we can feel the difference between this and being in-person – an adjective I don’t remember using much prior to the pandemic – as we can feel the difference between now and then in moments of deceptive but meaningful nostalgia.
Our experiences of the digital realm and new technologies are often defined by their strangeness and unfamiliarity, as when an amputee learns how to move a bionic arm. The person needs to re-learn how to use something that is no longer there, and also needs to add new knowledge to this. This is an extreme example, but it is demonstrative of the necessity of learning how to use new technology in order to perform actions well and, also, to make sense of the present, and how it connects to the past and the future. On a collective level, our models of human experience and action are rooted in a past where technologies like virtual or augmented reality were absent. MiMU gloves allow the wearer to make music by moving their hands. Imagine showing this to someone twenty years ago. Prior models, prior maps, allow for change, divergence, modulation. The other day I put on a VR headset for a few minutes. I didn’t quite know how to make sense of the experience. It created and required a new way of perceiving and understanding things, but one that was connected to existent models of perception. What does all this have to do with Bath’s creative industries and the city’s creative ecology?
If the future is going to be increasingly defined by digital and tech, we should equip ourselves with the know-how to use these tools well, and with the knowledge to better navigate the worlds and places in which we live – a sort of digital and tech literacy, coupled with an ecological literacy. I cannot avoid thinking about democracy and power in this context. In the digital world borders and boundaries collapse like curtains of air, and new technology is constantly crossing into new territories. The distance between where we are and where we were is palpable, and the speed with which we traverse that distance is sometimes overwhelming. Without the ability to make sense of this experience, our actions and interactions might continue to be confusing, odd, counterproductive. I think about connection, how you cannot be connected to something you are. This makes distinctions important, but the more categories there are, the more disconnected I feel, the greater the need for connection as an antidote to this. I think about the research project and wonder how this writing connects to it.
Digital, tech, and ecological literacy can also aid in the process of collaboration – this is a key part of the research. I think effective collaboration can only be achieved by understanding how different, and sometimes disparate, parts fit together, but this process of fitting together can be misunderstood, guileless or sluggish without a frame. A frame both creates and implies value – aesthetic, social, relational, ecological, economic – and value is something which is defined by a ‘we’. Who comes to be part of this ‘we’? Who defines what is valuable? I lose myself for a while, and then think about the opening line from Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. To misquote: I write this sitting in the Locksbrook café. I commend myself on a sustained period of nail growth. I feel compelled, partly by a desire for lunch, to stop writing here.
I do not live in Bath, though I am resident of two studio spaces: EMERGE at Sion Hill and The Studio at Palace Yard Mews, Bath Spa’s Enterprise & Innovation Hub. People work and interact within these studios temporarily, occupying spaces, coming and going. The organisational and spatial structures of these studios encourage an interrupted flow. An artist familiar with robotics bumps into another who creates sound installations. A writer has a chat with a painter and another visual artist who uses code to create geometric images (these examples are made-up). These pauses, these interactions, allow visions to emerge of what or how things could be – they turn ‘undifferentiated space’into place. They provide openings. Still, it’s hard to shift out of patterns. When I arrive at Palace Yard Mews, I have my set way of doing things. I enter in the same way, scanning my card and half-barging the door open with my shoulder. I go to the first floor, to the same desk, though the other week someone else was using it. These little actions are automated, like the habits formed in my room, or in vacant moments – biting my nails, drumming, getting lost in some part of the internet. They are impulsive actions, and often I do not realise I am doing something until I find myself doing it, until I come out into an opening, as in a forest or a city.
The studio spaces are distinct from that functional, habitual, automated fabric of the city. They are also occasionally distinguished by their lack of intimacy with this fabric, the visions which sprout from them representing an intermingling of subjectivities, devolved of the constraining characteristics of a place and its culture. This is not oppositional to the pauses I mentioned previously. Intimacy is partly about care, but it easy to get lost in this. Caring too much can become burdensome or oppressive both for the caregiver and receiver. You can lose perspective. Gaining distance is not an act of carelessness, but keeps possibilities open by giving space for different perspectives to emerge. It might sound like I am writing about a person, but I think this way of speaking can also be used when discussing places and our relationship to them. Care draws attention and focus to my actions, but I know that, for example, when I am drumming if I focus too much on each little action the whole thing falls apart. I’m reminded of a scene in the film 24 Hour Party People. Martin Hannett, played by Andy Serkis, is trying to explain to Stephen Morris of Joy Division how he should play the drums. He says, “Let’s just try something a lot simpler, okay? Faster, but slower.” Faster, but slower. Or in this instance: closer, but further away. This is an interesting, if strange, way to think about the future of Bath’s creative industries and, by extension, the city’s creative ecology. Closer, but further away.
 Yi Fu Tuan: “…each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place.” Pauses allow value to be experienced and co-created.
Place is a pattern of rhythms. I wrote the start of this on a train. I write this part at the desk in my bedroom. I work from the morning up until lunchtime. Sometimes I work downstairs at the kitchen table. The house is south facing, so the light that comes in through the windows is soft until late morning. The day is punctuated strangely, patterned in a different way to a day at an office, or a bar, or a café. In an office I would not leave my desk as much. I would feel less comfortable. Places accrue different qualities; they form their own microcultures. This word ‘culture’ crosses between subjects and scales. Biology. Anthropology. From the microculture of my room, to the culture of the city, to national culture. Each has its own media, its own “middle position”, its own conditions of existence. More and more, the conditions of my bedroom are being mixed with others. Where the culture of work was previously experienced in different physical structures, it has changed, migrated. Where the culture of entertainment emerged in cinemas, clubs; where the culture of education emerged in schools and universities, now these cultures slip from those moorings and begin to mingle in my room, like microplastics in the ocean. I wake up and I am in many places.
Yet, I still feel as if I am in only one position. It helps me to think of place concentrically, one place nestled inside another, the smaller places distinct yet part of the larger ones. This is an exercise which could continue ad infinitum (concentric circles all the way down…or in?), but I like to stop at the borders of my own body. I do this because I am trying to reconcile simplicity with complexity, both of which can be used to qualitatively describe places. I go from my body to a slightly larger place: a building, a locale. In many ways, I still identify home with the house I grew up in from the age of four, in Forest Gate, London. This house – its physical composition, its furnishings, the colour on the walls, the images and objects my parents had brought back from time spent in Kenya and Nigeria and the behaviours of my parents and siblings within it – has shaped my structures, my patterns, of value and action. I have carried these patterns across to other places, just as I have carried the patterns of Essex, where I went to school, Epping Forest, Hackney, Shoreditch, Soho, Camden, The Lake District, Devon, Cornwall, Normandy, Brittany, Lancaster, Tuscany, Bologna, Bath, Bristol. There are patterns everywhere.
Almost the end of March. It is warm and the seagulls are screaming. The sun is turning buildings into blinding instruments. Bottles clink, and I like to think they are filled with alcohol. A shadow passes overhead. That spindly, isolated bit of heather Indicates left. I cannot see the whole of its dance. Someone on another hillock mentions wifi and I am reminded of exactly where I am.
How do we fill moments? How do moments fill us? Each moment has its peculiar structure. Each moment we look anew. Each moment weighted with each moment passed and the moments passed which have left us with our peculiar frames through which we view the world we are part of. An observer, a participant. And each moment which forces us to confront this strange situation in which we are our own God, omniscient, powerless, breached by ourselves, seeking to avoid our own gaze beside the birch overlooking the city. Spires made of thick air. Pylons made of plastic mist. The moss and the heather and the grass on which I’m sat. The names which situate me beneath the late March sun, my face freshly shaven.
The tall chimney ruffled seems as though it could collapse at this moment. Rough, sharp, something of it beyond language, the language that I write existing in the frame of things previously thought, the words an expression that I don’t take it for granted. Put there, standing there falling back on itself through itself like breath, like something simple. The words re-read each line moving away from and toward the ones that buffer it. The single tower made by today, the wind touching my left cheek and my chest, the dried heather around me and the voices, “Fucking hell, man!” the voices. The sound of the M32 disfigured and stretched by the distance the sounds which make me think of where they come from how they are positioned. The giggle which has a different colour from the answering voices and so moves me, differently taking me apart, differently.
This is an extended version of an autoethnography I submitted as part of my post-grad dissertation, exploring and describing my relationship to place.
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.