The books that bind – thoughts on merging with place
February 2, 2013 1 Comment
“Objects surely don’t talk. Or do they? The person in that living room gives an account of themselves by responding to questions. But every object in that room is equally a form by which they have chosen to express themselves” (Miller, 2008: 2)
Whilst in Devon just before Christmas I visited an elderly relative. I’d not been to his house for over 30 years. I was last there in my early teens and stepping inside I was struck by how much I’d remembered, and how little seemed to have changed. Time moves slowly in cosy suburban family homes, capsules that pass through decades with only modest (but diligent) periodic adjustment of decor and utility. But in that fundamental sense of ‘home’, the houses themselves remain the same; the same footprint, the same proportions, the same textures of wood, woollen carpet, sideboards and occasional tables.
Stepping into the warm sitting room, as the youngest member of a rather elderly posse, I was welcomed and guided to a sofa by the room’s chief resident – Uncle T, for this was a visit to the room of a terminally ill man. But this man was still in control of his immediate world. That day, Uncle T was the consummate host, the master of ceremonies, his armchair positioned at the apex of the room, face on to the TV. A side table had a neat row of remote controls readily available for his hand’s grasp.
In this room, all seats faced towards the TV and the sideboard beyond. On those shelves were Christmas cards, assorted decorations gathered and cherished over the years, and an abundance of cotton wool simulating the snow that hardly ever falls on the real ground outside. I quickly came to realise that, in this room, everything had its place, both physically and also within a rich symbolic order. My fellow visitors and hosts discussed cards and clan-family allegiances intently, and in doing so mapped out a rich socio-spatial hierarchy, for it was revealed that the positioning of particular cards on the display shelves was a product of an assessment of a measured quantum of love, and of the degree of concordance of motif and inscription to what was expected. This was a rich anthropology of sign and status, a system of propriety offering itself up in a warm sitting room in suburban Torquay.
But what struck me most then (and even more so looking back now) was the neat rows of books about Devon arranged on shelves at Uncle T’s right shoulder. This was a pre-internet treasured trove of Birthday and Christmas gifts. An archive built lovingly through a lifetime by an enthusiast. And, I must assume, reflective of a deep interest in the context of the locality within which Uncle T had lived his entire life, a life which finally ended yesterday after a long illness.
In recalling the scene in that room: the people, the chatter, the cards, the ornaments and the books I’m left with an impression of connection to place, connection to context and the comfort born of both relationships with things themselves and of cherished knowledge about those things and their orderings.
And here I’m reminded of Nick Papadimitriou’s yearning to become Middlesex, to merge into the place that means so much to him, and which he has written about so eloquently in Scarp, and which he more than hinted at in John Roger’s documentary, The London Perambulator (2009). Papadimitriou shows in both how throughout his life the northern London edgelands were akin to a cherished parent, and how from seeking solace a deep urge to know this territory at all levels and in all conceivable ways came to the fore. He would forage both land and bookshops and libraries, amassing an archive of local knowledge – ecology, topography, infrastructure, history and ghosts: in his words a ‘deep topography’, one built from a process by which:
“I pull my region closer, dragging its leaf-fall, scrap iron, blotting-paper substance home with me after every walk. I spread my finds out on the trestle table and spend long evenings in examination. I hear voices hovering around these tiny fragments of other times, other people’s lives…” (Papadimitriou 2012: 77)
Papadimitriou and Uncle T were very different people. To Uncle T the terms psychogeographer, urban explorer or antiquarian would have been meaningless (and probably corrosive). Instead, I think Uncle T was performing something straighter, but no less engaged in seeking out a context, an understanding of his locality. Whether motivated by local history, rambling or appropriatism (the ‘Local Interest’ section in any bookshop attracts many who would regard such an interest as healthy, positive and socially aspirant) these books were accumulated and – I must assume by their multitude and prominence – read, re-read and cherished.
Mike Parker, in his wry thoughts on how best to differentiate funky middle-aged psychogeographers from third-aged ramblers and local history enthusiasts, offers up the view that these respective practices are distinguished (only) by a difference in reflexivity. As he puts it:
“The greatest difference is humour: a deep map of anywhere needs irony, poetry and a sharp sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime, not qualities generally found among the serried ranks of bank managers in the local history society.” (2010: 272)
As Parker notes, this is rather a harsh judgment on the non-psychogeographers. But I think it carries some truth. Uncle T was a serious headed man. Those of Uncle T’s cast carry a sober faith in the journey towards truth and completeness that their engagements with their localities are achieving. Deep topographers of Papadimitriou’s hue seek and find a dislocation at the heart of what they find; a mystery rather than a mastery. Psychogeographic enquiry, it seems to me, seeks an experiential multiplication of the pieces, and not necessarily with the aim of totalisation or conclusive understanding.
But whilst the reason for each of these types of journeys may be different, each – at their extreme – points to an ultimate absorption into the place that is the subject of the intense scrutiny. And so, I’d like to think that Uncle T has now at last – in an entirely unpsychogeographic manner – found a way to finally become Devon itself.
Miller, D. (2008) The Comfort of Things, Polity: Cambridge.
Papadimitriou, N. (2012) Scarp, Sceptre: London
Parker, M. (2010) Map Addict, Collins: London
Rogers, J. (dir) (2009) The London Perambulator (documentary) available to view at http://londonperambulator.wordpress.com/