Re-visiting a BBC Radio 4 – Start the Week podcast from late last year (28 October 2013) in the context of a story that is in a continual state of creation I was returned once more to the subject of the city, and how the individual interacts with the city.
Three main topics came up that are all inter-related and weave in and out of each other:
- Seeing the city – Seeing the city when you visit, and when you live in it. You see the city at different levels, you see different layers: different distances, perhaps, as visitors often see the up-close, the grime, the quotidien, whereas locals overlook these, at a different height, blending out the noise (different signal-to-noise ratio).
- Re-using old buildings, re-purposing: building life, or perception of people living in them? – Are old buildings worth saving? What constitutes the criteria for preserving something? Is it a feeling of an era, something representative, something that fits into a temporal environment? And so when moving out of this frame/window, what happens to the building? Does it become a museum, attracting visitors, or can the building be used again to attract people who will live in it (again, the immersion question)? And how is the feeling of the building perceived, depending on which it will be?
- Patrimonie, not heritage nor nostalgia – A call to define something that is not heritage (i.e., needs to be preserved as is) or nostalgia (i.e., go back to how they were), but rather that the old becomes incorporated into a library of “things” which the people living through an era, and those coming directly afterwards (since the effect wears off over time), share and can at any time dig into to root themselves, ground themselves, and find a framework.
Overall, the sense is one of what happens when one immerses oneself consciously in a city, beginning to see things that one might not have seen before. Light, layers, a built-up history of settings, buildings, an urban environment in which one is both forever a (transient) visitor as well as a permanent resident, leaving behind a scent, a trail, a kernel of existence.
The river as a metaphor in terms of passive and active participation in the past, present, and future keeps re-appearing, this time in the context of a discussion heard on a BBC Radio 4 – Start the Week podcast (10 March 2014).
The thrust of the discussant seems to be the need to move away from an idea of history and the future as a river, i.e. with a given course, flowing along, with rapids that need to be navigated, falls that need to be dealt with, and more towards the future as an ocean, with possibilities and opportunities in every direction. The key is to move away from a passive participation, allowing onself to be carried along, and towards active interest and learning.
Ironically, this is the third reference to anonymity in a row, although in an entirely different context: “rescuing these soldiers from anonymity.”
I refer to a BBC Radio 4 – Crossing Continents podcast on the volunteers making extraordinary efforts to find the bodies of Russian soldiers fallen during the second World War.
The story touched me both for the emotional aspect as well as the psychogeographical element: there is a strong psychological and historical element regarding where these men fell, how they were “incorporated” into the landscape (i.e., overgrown, intertwined with trees, planted over, lost [actively] in the forest), and how their simple historical reality is reflected in their physical presence in the landscape (literally).
Inspired by a Start the Week podcast from December 2013, I made myself a note before Christmas to spend some time thinking about the lively discussion, which was loosely centered on the idea of an “old-fashioned” community based on geography, and whether this can really be re-created in the current modern world, with its variety of different connections and reasons for connections. As a counter-point, the idea was raised to what extent a community arises from the existence of a common purpose as opposed to simply a physical geography. This is probably especially interesting if the common purpose exists in the face of adversity, and raises a multitude of additional tangential questions:
- How does one define a community?
- Who defines a community? Those within it or those from without?
- Do communities form in physical locales, or do individuals/groups move to a specific locale with the creation of a community in mind?
My particular interest, as might be expected, relates to the psychogeography aspect of this discussion. Psychogeography is also tied to community, but in two different ways. On the one hand, it is tied to community as most of the memories linked to its geography happen in the community, in a shared area that is familiar. On the other hand, however, one of the key points of psychogeography as it has been studied, described, and formulated was to move into the unfamiliar, explore the areas outside the community, or perhaps to better describe it: outside the known community. This generates in my mind an image not just of overlapping communities, but stacks of communities, where sub-groups exist within larger entities, and individuals are defined (and define themselves) as belonging to different circles based on their personality, belief, or other subjective or objective criteria.
An idea for a story that came to mind (related to the additional discourse on the disappearance of the traditional high street) was of a person walking down such a high street, with the narrative focussed on the sensory experience: sights, smells, the overall experience of what made the high street a special place and often a/the central location of a community.
Just in time to save me the effort, a recent Thinking Allowed podcast about the multicultural smells of an East End market in London brought this back again. This kind of sensory description can be used to link different cultures with different locations, different times, and the many layers and waves of immigration and assimilation into big urban centers such as London. And at the core are people such as “Ali the assimilationist hero” who by understanding his customers (from many different backgrounds) is able to stitch together a pathwork of sensory and cultural triggers that not only satisfy each customer individually but make up the rich tapestry of which each individual is a part.
As someone interested in geography (and pretty pictures), I used to be on a mailing list run by NASA which showcased the most stunning and intensely thought-provoking satellite images of natural phenomena. One of the images and accompanying stories that has stayed with me since I first saw it years ago was of a region in Chad called the Bodélé Depression.
Although visually striking, what really captivated me was the mechanism behind the combination of wind and earth that is this natural conveyor belt, located at the southern edge of the Sahara, at the lowest point in Chad in central Africa. To quote from Wikipedia:
“Dust storms from the Bodélé Depression occur on average about 100 days per year … [a]s the wind sweeps between the Tibesti and the Ennedi Mountains in Northern Chad, it is channeled across the depression. The dry bowl that forms the depression is marked by a series of ephemeral lakes, many of which were last filled during wetter periods of the Holocene. Diatoms from these fresh water lakes, once part of Mega-Lake Chad, now make up the surface of the depression and are the source material for the dust, which, carried across the Atlantic Ocean, is an important source of nutrient minerals for the Amazon rainforest.”
“…about half of the annual dust supply to the Amazon basin is emitted from a single source: the Bodélé depression located northeast of Lake Chad, approximately 0.5% of the size of the Amazon or 0.2% of the Sahara. Placed in a narrow path between two mountain chains that direct and accelerate the surface winds over the depression, the Bodélé emits dust on 40% of the winter days, averaging more than 0.7 million tons of dust per day. … About 40 million tons of dust are transported annually from the Sahara to the Amazon basin. Saharan dust has been proposed to be the main mineral source that fertilizes the Amazon basin, generating a dependence of the health and productivity of the rain forest on dust supply from the Sahara.”
As an analogy for what a single person or small group of individuals can do in the new era of digital media, this natural phenomenon seems to me to be unsurpassed.
So this was my personal “farewell” to London. I’ve had ample time to reflect on this topic, as the streams of geography and psychogeography wash over me and I prepare to go to Merrimoles for what will probably be a last visit.
London, of course, isn’t going anywhere: but I am certainly not expecting to be here again anywhere near as often as is currently the case.
It is not going to be possible to see everything, say a personal goodbye to all the different corners and roundabouts that have marked the paths trodden during 18 years in and around London, but I will try to visit the nodes, those points where the energy and the intersection of energy lines flows strongest.
For my interest in cities and urban life London has always served as the epitome, the example I hold up against the light whenever I am contrasting any other town or city in its light (for better or for worse). It has shaped my feeling things as diverse as weather and culture: the ever-changing seasons, spring and autumn in London, music (Royal Festival Hall), art (Tate Modern), the breeze driving in from the sea (the Thames). In all these things and many more, London as a geographical entity was intimately involved: perhaps because of the people it draws in, its multicultural nature, its location and island home, or simply because all the things that interconnect within me are also somehow interconnected within this urban conglomeration of Londinium.
London is, moreover, a powerful magnet: for most of my 18 years in the UK I did not live in London, but at what might be called London’s periphery, assuming that the focus is all. The focus, of course, in many ways was the family home: and a big part of my farewell will necessarily revolve around the center as seen from the perspective of Gerrards Cross and the years spent there. Walks in Cliveden and Kew, sports both in GX and in the satellite competitor towns spread around South Bucks, visits to friends’ houses in Amersham, Beaconsfield, High Wycombe, Missenden, and frequent mixed-bag days in Eton and Windsor.
Because although London beckons, it is these outlying fields that I should spend contemplating, since they are the least likely places to see me again soon. London will remain London, much as a broom remains a broom, no matter how many times the handle and the head are exchanged. The river will still be there, as will the Tower and the Houses of Parliament, and visits to Great Britain will inevitably focus on the great city itself, rather than the Home Counties.
So these should be enjoyed and stored in the memories of departure: the difference between city and country is never much larger than traversing these 30 miles across the M25, and both have shaped me and my being in the most formative years of my life.
- Can one comment on cities and the city environment if one doesn’t live in a city?
- How is the city perceived by someone living outside the city? (suburbs, short train ride, long train ride away? increasing distance from the center of gravity?)
- How is the country perceived by someone living in the city?
- What is easier in the country, and why?
- What is more difficult in the country, and why?
“…cities are at the apex of human endeavour. High-density cities are creative, thrilling and less environmentally destructive than sprawling car-based suburbs typical of America. Cities are passports from poverty. They attract poor people, rather than creating them. They are where humans are at their most artistically and technologically creative.”