Place writing now

On 18 November last year 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
  • topophilia – frame of reference, 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 @eccentricparab

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. Guests:

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 | Jan Morris in Literary Review | AmazonGdn & again) has been nominated for the Wainwright Prize. Essentially it’s about how travellers come home – here are my notes from an extract:

  • Heidegger in Building Dwelling Thinking (p20): “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.”
  • 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”
  • Yi-Fu Tuan on 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.

Courses on place writing and related:

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