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.
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.
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.”
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’. Act – ‘to set in motion, drive, drive forward’. 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
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 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?“
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.