Monday, 12 April 2010

'Place' texts

I must admit to having horribly neglected this project so far because I have been working on an exhibition that opens this Friday (see if you are interested. However today I have finally managed to sit down and write some texts for possible inclusion in the exhibition. Now what is floating around in my head is how I might present these. With/without images (and if 'with' what of!) or mapping kind of diagram and on 1 big or several small bits of paper....

How are you guys getting on?


The man at our B&B did the same walk as us, up Wansfell Pike. The next morning at breakfast he got out his map to trace the route, describing as he did so the landscape and the views he had enjoyed. Engrossed in re-living this experience he did not seem to register our interjections – explaining that we too had scrambled up the shorter route to the Pike's summit, looking down from the top at the panorama of Windermere and its surroundings.

The map was his guide. I could imagine him stopping to rest leaning on a gate-post and checking his course. Now its lines and markers were an aide to memory. We – mere amateurs – had followed the narrative of a popular walker's guide from the tourist information centre. When we stopped it was to match a description or illustration of a flat topped peak with an actual fell-top, or a picture of a stile with one within our sights. We stayed on course by recognising the actual landscape in the visual and verbal descriptions the guide provided.

Our walk included another kind of recognition too. Things had been feeling rather familiar for a while and, when we walked a distinctive path between two dry stone walls, I realised this was the same walk we'd done two years previously – popular enough to be reproduced in several walking guides. We did not, however, tell this to the man enjoying his breakfast reverie in case of spoiling his sense of a unique experience of the landscape.


Recently I returned to a part of the city where I lived several years ago. Standing opposite a pub on the corner of my old street I saw that it was built in a mock Tudor style. Though it is a pub I have been in several times, and its styling stands out from the surrounding terraces, I had no memory of having noticed this before. I wondered, was its appearance something I had forgotten or had I never really looked at it properly?

This feeling of uncertainty was akin to noticing the space left by a demolished building and being unable to remember what has been there. It reminded me too of my discomfort at being asked for directions to a place I know very well, yet cannot clearly describe. Attempting to draw a map from 'here' to 'there,' I realise I don't know how many streets or buildings are placed on the route, or even exactly what direction 'there' is.


When I first discovered Google Earth I looked at an ariel view of where I live now, followed by locations where I have lived in the past. Only then did I consider that it may be more interesting to look at unfamiliar places – to learn what they are like. This, I suspect, is typical. Google Earth provides a technologically more sophisticated version of the photographs of 'your house' taken from a helicopter that I remember door-to-door salesmen peddling when I was a child.

One thing that struck me when looking at my childhood hometown from above was that I had never really considered what was outside my territory. Beyond our street on one side was the recreation ground and a known road route. The other side, I could see now, were a few more houses and then fields. With no paths or roads to take me there, this was an area I did not know.


Once I decided to walk home, following the 4 mile route I usually take by bus. The first part of my journey did not seem unusual – taking a path that I used to walk daily when I lived nearer the City centre. However on reaching Elland Road the experience became somewhat disconcerting. Accustomed to seeing this route from the top deck of the bus, the speed and scale of the place was all wrong. The distance between my familiar reference points (typically buildings or street furniture placed next to bus stops or traffic lights) seemed immense. I felt dwarfed by billboards and the semi-industrial units which I usually looked at directly or peered down upon.

The experience recalled a trip to southern California when, driving south from LAX to Santa Barbara, I noticed firstly the scale of the place. Although the landscape was strange to me it was at once familiar from images I had seen in films. However the experience was cinematic not just because of prior filmic representations but also because the scale of the roads and buildings and the speed at which we traversed them.


One of the 'X-Factor' contestants in 2009 – a previous loser on 'Popstars: The Rivals' – sustained a career singing in working men's clubs. A film segment profiling this contestant included a cutaway shot of a building which looked familiar. I was at first uncertain but a second viewing confirmed this was a working men's club local to my house. I walk past it on my journeys to and from the town centre, yet here it appeared isolated from its context and viewed from a direct, unfamiliar angle.

There is a strange fascination involved in spotting places that you know on TV, whether random or anticipated. The series 'Midsommer Murders,' is filmed in the area where I grew up. Though I am not interested in the programme, I enjoy watching episodes to 'location spot.' The pursuit is complicated by the fact that within fiction places not really adjacent to each other can be collapsed. A character walks down the Buttermarket in Thame and emerges in a place I do not know.

The satisfaction involved in seeing places you know on TV seems unconcerned by context. In 2005 one of the London bombers had lived a few of streets up from my house in Beeston. I was fixated by the news footage of policeman standing outside a cordoned off house that I could have walked to in 3 or 4 minutes.

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