Places of Memory

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Glasgow Uni spire seen from Kelvingrove Park

There is a sense in which selfhood is just a scattering of remembrances, remembrances dependent on places. Everywhere in which I have been encodes some trail, some trace of memory. As a child whenever we went on walks I would magic things into being, imagining worlds on top of worlds, layering enchanted spaces and creatures upon the reality of adolescent landscapes. I’d see fantastic beings darting in rocky streams, strange birds sweeping from forest canopies, a thousand intriguing microbes, exotic in colour, swirling on the ground amidst the paws of my (real-life) dog. And even as I grow older, shedding away these whimsical worlds, I keep the magic of perception, imbuing the places I visit with a mental significance. As some store their spatial memories in smartphones, clicking them into flattened snapshots, I try to inscribe them in my mind as networks of sentiment – of senses, thought and memory. There is this particular spot in Kelvingrove Park, with the perfect view of the Glasgow Uni spire and a quiet pool of sunlight that occurs in May at about 4 o’clock; the spot where after my first year exams I sat lazily making daisy chains and reading Laurie Lee’s nostalgically beautiful Cider With Rosie. There is that salt smell and clacking of pebbles, the quick breeze that is Brighton Beach and with it many far off summers, of paddling cold feet and minty sticks of rock. Weird innocence. There is that favourite place in Culzean, a small jutting of cliff that looks out to a glittering dusk-covered ocean and the eerie mound of the Ailsa Craig. So many times I have sat up there with various friends and family and each time I am a different person, bound together perhaps only by the chains of associations set off by this location. Although I was brought up in the country, my mind is also a sprawl of urban spaces: the wintry, bustling streets of Paris at New Year, the seagull strewn alleyways of Ayr, Glasgow’s gritty pavements and eclectic skyline of the modern and the gothic, Edinburgh with its panoramic view of hillside, castle, parliament and sea. What makes all these places somehow special is my relationship to them both cognitively and spatially – in other words, psychogeographically – a sense of pulsating interconnections based on walking, on exploring the world on foot.

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Ailsa Craig

Someone who has written extensively on his psychogeographic travels is the author Will Self, who ambles everywhere, in the search for new perspectives of space – walking famously from his house in England to New York (albeit with the help of an aeroplane), exploring the curious border spaces between urban and rural, airport and field. Self worries that in the contemporary world of globalisation and machine transport, we are becoming increasingly confined to ‘micro-worlds’ which offer restricted, miniature universes of hotels, airports, clubs and bars that bear little difference from city to city, in the sense that they are being used for the same purpose, and we rarely escape them. The frequency with which tourists, travellers and the like will take a taxi cab, subway or train rather than exploring on foot results in a limited perspective of urban space. There is no chance to stand back and observe one’s situatedness in relation to the built environment, to gauge one’s relationship to north, to the cathedral, the river; to form the intricate networks of association and recollection that pattern themselves around street-walking. I want to make a plea for this street-walking, not just as a fitness alternative to the stuffy mundanity of the gym but as an exercise in perception, in self-formation. (Sometimes, sounding pretentious or perhaps overly poetic is worth getting my point across, especially if it’s a pretty simple point about the joys of that most archaic of sports: walking.)

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street in Dowanhill

I feel like I’m naturally bad at driving. I don’t like being in control of a dangerous vehicle; yes, that’s one reason, and a reason certainly more justified after delving into J. G. Ballard’s dystopian account of sex, violence and dangerous driving in Crash. The car, as a vehicle of speed charged with the excitement of modernity – see Marinetti’s ‘The Futurist Manifesto’ – is the antithesis of the slow pacing of walking. With a great driving instructor, I took lessons for over a year and while I enjoyed the freedom of leaving my small town and gliding (at my shy snail’s pace) along country roads, I don’t think I’m cut out to drive powerful vehicles. Even a bike I manage only at a push. I spend too long getting distracted by pretty sunsets, sheep, or the name of a passing cafe.

So I guess rather than machine-obsessed Marinetti, I’m more aligned with the modernism of the flâneur, the original ‘street-walker’ who spent his/her time sauntering the streets (usually of Paris) and losing his/herself in the crowd. Charles Baudelaire describes the flâneur in The Painter of Modern Life: 

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home.

There is something strangely ‘natural’ in becoming a liminal figure, between observation and participation, haunting the city streets and drinking the atmosphere of the crowd as if it were the very sustenance of life itself. Moreover, this sense of haunting can be literal, as stepping among a wealth of sensations recalls dreaded memories and fugue states of psychological wandering, as the narrator of Jean Rhys’ novel, Good Morning, Midnight suggests:

Twelve o’clock on a fine autumn day, and nothing to worry about. Some money to spend and nothing to worry about.
But careful, careful! Don’t get excited. You know what happens when you get excited and exalted, don’t you?….Yes….And then, you know how you collapse like a pricked balloon, don’t you ? Having no staying power….Yes, exactly….So, no excitement. This is going to be a quiet, sane fortnight. Not too much drinking, avoidance of certain cafes, of certain streets, of certain spots, and everything will go off beautifully. The thing is to have a programme, not to leave any thing to chance – no gaps. No trailing around aimlessly with cheap gramophone records starting up in your head, no ‘Here this happened, here that happened’. Above all, no crying in public, no crying at all if I can help it.
Thinking all this, I pass the exact place for my after dinner drink. It’s a cafe on the Avenue de l’Observatoire, which always seems to be empty. I remember it like this before.

The narrator, Sasha, speaks in ellipses, in the strange silences and drifting prose of a vagabond, losing her mind to the networks of memory that haunt and map out her present.

And while Rhys’ flaneur is at times made painfully aware of herself by her own solitude amidst the Parisian crowds, sometimes in the city, one actually craves the claustrophobia of people and buildings and even the nasty proliferation of pigeons. It is maybe a kind of sublime, where one forgets one’s self in the overwhelming hustle and bustle. I remember my first time walking into Glasgow city centre on foot via Argyle and St Vincent Street. Standing breathless at the crossing of the A804 I looked up to the massive glass-coated buildings, beaming off bright April sunlight. There’s a feeling there that I don’t think I’ll ever quite replicate, that of a young adult from a little town, now encountering for the first time alone the vastness and slightly daunting excitement of the metropolis. It is a vision of the city infinitely different from seeing the big buildings from the safety of the backseat of a car; a vision that seems much more urgent on foot, with the vehicles rushing around you and the commercial structures seeming so much grander from the pavement. And it is funny now, how I walk past these buildings so often and they seem diminished; I have adopted more of a blasé, Simmelian attitude to an urban environment that once appeared so compelling. The only solution to this, of course, is to explore new places, gain new perspectives.

It isn’t easy to explore new places when you are notoriously bad at navigation. I didn’t take Modern Studies over Geography for nothing; I genuinely find it a problem grasping my location through maps, to mentally situate myself. Instead of compass coordinates or street names, I tend to place myself in relation to strange landmarks: a telephone box with wild flowers sprouting out the side, an antique shop where the man sits outside polishing wood and making sandwiches, a crumbling wall or peculiar tree that grows by a river. My brain is more of a mesh of colours and markers than a standardised map of labelled coordinates; I know my space through unstable nodes of remembered landmarks which shift and change  and alter my spatial awareness. Perhaps this is why Glasgow (or even just the West End) no longer seems the same, huge place it once did when I first came to uni. Perhaps this is why I always tend to get lost in new places, because I can’t follow a steady route without getting distracted by the allure of a pretty residential estate or a path that detours miles along a canal.

An example of this is my sense of Victoria Park. Victoria Park often comes up weirdly in Limmy’s Show as a place where the fences demand repainting, but that isn’t my only notion of it. Victoria Park is a strange place in its location: a kind of island of green surrounded by motorway. And it is quite difficult to get to, requiring knowledge of the underpass and the correct entrances. I’m better at it now, but before I used to set out for it, following the trail set out by my portable Google Map, and then get confused and lost, ending up wandering aimlessly around Whiteinch. I don’t really know why I forgot how to get there, after the first time I stumbled across it. It flashed in my mind only as a bizarre mirage, almost like Mirage Island from Pokemon Ruby & Sapphire, appearing to me only on certain days when the weather was right and I was in the proper frame of mind necessary for navigation. I actually had to search online for photos of the place, to make sure I really had been there, to make sure it existed at all. The seeming elusiveness of the Park gave it an ethereal quality that remains today, even though I have now memorised exactly the route to get there.  And it’s not that difficult at all, really. Barely thirty minutes from my flat. Yet arriving upon that still, wide silver pond with its hordes of swans, I feel like I have found a peaceful, otherworldly territory. And then I hear the Glaswegian accent of a fellow walker with his dog, and the illusion shatters somewhat.

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Victoria Park in autumn

Glasgow is peppered with these secret spaces, and as the old etymology goes, it is in a strong sense a ‘dear green place’. There are so many parks and walkways I have yet to discover. I have found canals and strolls along the river, where you could be anywhere – until you spot a stunning piece of architecture peeping through the trees. And like all the places of my childhood, I feel like Glasgow is now a part of me: I have a  hidden history that exists among the old buildings, the pretty parks and streets. I don’t think I’d have such a strong sense of rootedness if I hadn’t explored the city always on foot; if I’d always gotten the Clockwork Orange (the subway) rather than meandering through various roots to town, would I have stumbled upon Park Circus, or the spring blossom that lights up Great Western Road? Living in the country is lovely, but when you are in a city, all it takes is a walk out the door and down a few streets and suddenly you are part of a crowd; not just a crowd of people, but a crowd of forgotten memories and historic spirits, of buildings that bear the souls of all those who have set foot inside them. The city has a certain music to it, different from the birdsong and breeze and tractor groans of the country, lively and beautiful and ambient all the same. Personally, I believe that you can only experience this music in its pure form by using your good old legs and walking the  metropolis. I’d like to end with one of my favourite passages of psychogeography, from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the young Stephen Dedalus is discovering Dublin for the first time:

Dublin was a new and complex sensation. […] In the beginning he contented himself with circling timidly round the neighbouring square or, at most, going half way down one of the side streets but when he had made a skeleton map of the city in his mind he followed boldly one of its central lines until he reached the customhouse. He passed unchallenged among the docks and along the quays wondering at the multitude of corks that lay bobbing on the surface of the water in a thick yellow scum, at the crowds of quay porters and the rumbling carts and the ill-dressed bearded policeman. The vastness and strangeness of the life suggested to him by the bales of merchandise stocked along the walls or swung aloft out of the holds of steamers wakened again in him theunrest which had sent him wandering in the evening from garden to garden in search of Mercedes. And amid this new bustling life he might have fancied himself in another Marseille but that hemissed the bright sky and the sum-warmed trellises of the wineshops.

Yes, I’ll leave you with that lovely, assonant image of sun-warmed trellises and bright skies and wineshops…because it’s always nice to imagine a sunnier world on top of the real one.

(all photos taken by me)

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