Place writing now

On 18 November 2014 the London Review Bookshop held an event on Place writing now:

It’s not about travelling across the world to exotic places: it’s about digging where you stand.

Writing about place – a sub-genre of travel writing that subverts it by being about staying put, rather than moving – has been enjoying an extraordinary vogue of late. Three of the genre’s finest practitioners joined us at the shop to discuss its significance and future. Philip Marsden’s Rising ground explores the small part of Cornwall to which he has recently transplanted himself; Julian Hoffman, in The small heart of things finds home around the shores of Greece’s Prespa lakes, and Ken Worpole in The new English landscape, a collaboration with the photographer Jason Orton, proposes a new paradigm for topographical beauty based on the post-industrial landscape of the Thames estuary.

My notes from the recording:

  • place vs space: place is distinctive, space is characterised by sameness
  • one person’s space is another person’s place, cf self geographies – we all make our own maps
  • landscape vs place: place has an element of (cumulative) experience, tradition, and hence time
  • to live is to live locally, ie to know the place you live; to belong?
  • home has a concordance with place
  • Julian Hoffman (@JulianHoffman) – had no connection with the place, wrote to engage more deeply with it; stories came out of the place, helping him discover who the land is  – and who he is; when he comes back to the UK he feels closer to it; you make a new topography, unravel it and open it out; see also interview for Elsewhere | interview in Ecozona
  • Ken Worpole – the aesthetics of the post-industrial landscape; you can’t erase the past, how should you represent it and articulate it in the present; can’t level the past; time is crucial, but the present dictates all, with place as a framing device
  • what you can walk to in a day/year; our reference is small scale, but moved from vertical to horizontal when we became area of the shape of the world (see below); regions and nations are constructs, the place is our frame of reference – this is a universal response (so why travel?); mobility is an issue…we are hunter-gatherers, not farmers controlling the land
  • urban environments are characterised by diversity and displacement
  • we are moving but staying still – kestrel image, need an awareness even when on the move
  • maths of existence – we can only know a limited number of places
  • what awakens your perception, what is your trigger? time, place…
  • see also What is place?, an event report from @waymarksblog

Similar ground was covered by R4’s Start the Week on sense of place (29 December), looking at why we react so strongly to some places, look for meaning in them and build up stories about them over time. What makes a landscape (eg a particular site), essentially a blank canvas (space?), significant? Three cases: Tintagel, Glasto, Cornwall (the shape?). A sense of place, rootedness, magical places, wandering…communities create maps to create a sense of belonging.

Landscapes are not just somewhere you pass through – they have a human history which means something to us, which is experienced, not learnt (a sense of belonging again). We find way to a sense of being through landscape, a search for meaning which acknowledges myth and the unconscious. Rural landscapes are bare, the past is not suggested, but hidden, while urban landscapes have visible layers. (The built environment takes on new social, cultural and economic importance as a repository of collective memory – in tension with the increasing threat of erasure through new development.)

Guests:

  • Philip Marsden on place as a concept, we are defined by the place we live in, it’s like falling in love, intensity etc
  • Scottish artist Victoria Crowe has been painting the Pentlands for 30 years; people have over time responded to the same forms and shapes; that response can be powerful, creating eg Stonehenge
  • Ian Bostridge on performing and analysing Schubert’s Winterreise, where s/p(l)ace is endless, empty, featureless – see his Schubert’s Winter Journey: anatomy of an obsession
  • Joanne Parker on the maps we make in our mind; we map our private, hidden places in our heads; our personal map of eg Britain is a bit  like a self-geography; for more see Britannia Obscura and the Past in its Place project (more, now finished, with three books to come, one on each strand); update: at Living Maps on 10 May 2017, exploring five alternative maps: the caver’s map, the canal map, the aeronautical map, the ley-hunter’s map and the megalithic map of Britain

Philip Marsden also popped up yet again on Ramblings on 26 Feb, and is still doing the rounds as his Rising ground: a search for the spirit of place (Granta interview | AmazonGdn & again) has been nominated for the Wainwright Prize. Essentially it’s about how travellers come home – here are my notes from an extract (the first two chapters):

  • Heidegger in Building Dwelling Thinking (1954) and its example of a 200 year old farmhouse in the Black Forest, combining religious belief, domestic life and local topography
  • Dwelling means much more than just living in a house – it described a way of being in the world (in Old English and High German the word buan, meaning both ‘building’ and ‘to dwell’ is linked to the verb ‘to be’, so “To be is ‘to be in a place‘. Only by knowing our surroundings, being aware of topography and the past, can we live what Heidegger deems an ‘authentic’ existence. His ‘dwelling’ does highlight something we’ve lost in our hyper-connected world – the ability to immerse ourselves in one place.”
  • the effect that physical surroundings have on individuals and communities can be direct or symbolic and mythologised, as in the persistence of a lost homeland
  • the difference between ‘place’ and ‘space’ (p29-30): place is somewhere distinctive, where people react to and live with the particular topography around them, while space is an idealised location, absolute, unlimited and universal; a stress on the latter has led to the “abiding sameness which characterises contemporary life” and “an insensitivity to the significance of place”
  • space as the absolute, unlimited and universal, place the particular, the limited, the local and the bound (Escobar, 2001)
  • the long-term emphasis on space has led to monoculture in farming, homogeneous housing, duplicated shopping malls and the destruction of habitats – the abiding sameness that characterises contemporary life (vs Somewhere vs Anywhere), the result of insensitivity to the significance of place (Relph, 1976)
  • see also Tim Cresswell (2004) and Edward Casey (1996) quotes
  • Yi-fu Tuan‘s Topophilia (1990, but coined by WH Auden in 1947, for John Betjeman’s Slick but not streamlined): two different ways of seeing the world (p31): vertical and horizontal; the ‘vertical’ conception of a world based around how far one could walk in a day and a polytheistic belief system meant that places were coloured by the gods which inhabited them or even took the shape of places; around 1500 this gave way to a more ‘horizontal’ perception populated by more distant places

More! Interview in The Clearing, June 2015, and me on travel vs place, May 2017.

Courses on place writing and related:

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