I suppose this will be a sort of travel book. Not the sort that is packed with tales of adventure on the high seas, or encounters with native tribesmen, I’m afraid. And not the sort that furnishes Sunday timetables to Sidcup. But it is a travel book, nevertheless. Of course, it cannot pretend to be one of those magnificent travel books in the classic tradition, bristling with names like Ulaan Bator and Kasakhstan, and accompanied by a short glossary of geographical terms such as steppe, altiplano and serac. When you shake a real travel book, faded steamer tickets and diamond-shaped baggage labels should slip out from between cinnamon scented pages. The book should carry the souvenirs of its travels as jewels of prose, and as incense in the aroma of the binding. The spine should have been restitched by an eskimo girl, using lengths of her own hair as thread, and you should still be able to smell the seal oil from that final night together in the igloo.

Now, this book might not smell of seal oil, but here is an interesting thing. Any child who has had to learn capital cities for a school geography test will have heard of Ulaan Bator. Anyone with a map of the world on their bedroom wall will have looked, and chuckled, and wondered at the name. But hardly anyone, at least in my part of the world, has ever been there.  And none of my friends, or family, or even complete and puzzled strangers that I stop on the street outside my house know of anyone at all who actually comes from there. However, the great thing, the wonderful thing, the thing that reaffirms my faith in Geography and imagination, is that I have never met anybody who doesn’t actually believe in the place. Ulaan Bator is an act of faith. It may or may not really exist, and for most of us it really doesn’t matter. For most people, the same is true of Stoke-on-Trent, which is where this travel book begins.

Unless you come from Ulaan Bator, Stoke-on-Trent might not seem like the most exotic location to start off a travel book. Now, I have travelled all over the world. I have trekked across the Arctic tundra with only reindeer for company, and I have seen the mighty ice bergs drifting out of Jakobshavn Fjord. I have climbed the ash strewn slopes of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi to see icicles on the equator and looked down on seas of  tropical cloud.  I’ve been across the wide Missouri, and along the Great Divide, and okay, so I haven’t ever actually been to Sidcup on a Sunday, but I have been around. I know a wilderness when I see one. I know what “remote” looks like. I know the sulfurous smell of hot springs that bubble out from beneath glaciers a mile thick, and I know the smell of the desert when leaking fuel soaks into the sand and someone siphons oily water from the radiator into a dented billy can. But in all my travels, of all the places I have lived, Stoke takes the absolute biscuit (or pemmican) for remote. It is a lost civilisation. An undiscovered tribe. There are people here who will reglue the spine of your tattered travel book with clay from their own boots, and bake a fine glazed tile of Eskimo Nell to decorate the front, using dust that they licked from the back of your faded steamer ticket. Stoke, believe me, is as strange and magical a place as any.

One of the wonderful things that I have discovered in travelling the globe is that these lost tribes, these closed and idiosyncratic civilisations, these strange and magical places, are to be found in the most surprising locations. Often they are alarmingly close to home. In the days when explorers penetrated dark continents by paddling upstream along rivers that came from who knows where, the mountains and forests in between the waterways stood as bastions of maplessness against the extending fingers of discovery and civilisation. Nowadays the same is true of the communities that lie in the dark and inaccessible parishes inbetween the motorways. The towns that through-traffic forgot. They survive as cultural refugia. Capsules of time and attitude where outsiders seldom visit, and where the sons of potters raise potters of their own.

Probably the most famous footballer of all time, and certainly the most famous English footballer, was Stanley Matthews. When I was a boy, nearly fifty years ago, his legendary footballing exploits were already the stuff of dim and distant history.He lived on in cigarette cards and old black and white newsreels, with knee-length shorts and rolled up sleeves, running with flickering, jerky, newsreel steps. I grew up in Birmingham, only 40 miles from Stoke, and never once in my entire youth did I hear of Stanley Matthews referred to in the present tense. He was a hero of the golden past, and I assumed him long since dead. Half a lifetime later, I moved to live in Stoke-on-Trent and I encountered Sir Stanley, in the present tense, almost daily. He was a pillar of the community. He opened civic parks and supermarkets built on redeveloped clay pits, he featured in the local press, he unveiled a brand new statue of himself in front of the brand new Potteries Shopping Centre. Stanley Matthews was alive and well and living in Stoke on Trent. And guess what. My own childhood hero, the England goalkeeper Gordon Banks, the greatest goalkeeper of all time: he was here too! I have heard it said that once you come here you can never leave. Perhaps it is for that same reason that we don’t know anyone from Ulaan Bator. May be, like Potters, they just don’t get out much.

I would guess that no one in Ulaan Bator knows anyone from Stoke, either. However, one thing I have learned is that the world is designed to surprise us. Or, rather, we are designed to be surprised by the world. For me, finding that I lived in Stoke was a huge surprise. I didn’t know I was coming here until after I arrived. Because of its peculiar local geometry, the natural laws of Geography seem not to apply. It is a strange but true fact that if  you really want to visit Stoke-on-Trent, you can only succeed by following signs to somewhere else. If you follow the motorway signs or take the train directly to Stoke, you will, as God intended, be surprised at where you end up. And if, when you get over your surprise, you start to follow signs for the city centre, they will take you several miles to a different town altogether, a busy little town called Hanley that really is the heart of the city, despite the fact that it bears a different name and has never been heard of outside North Staffordshire. It is almost as if Stoke itself is a cunning disguise, a front, a theatrical prop set up for outsiders. All the real action, the real Stoke, has been moved next door to another, secret, town. Like all the best hidden civilisations and lost tribes, elaborate concealments hide it from the explorer.

When I applied for a job at the University of Keele, the booklet told me that it was a quiet campus near some little town that I had never heard of in rural Staffordshire, easily accessible from the M6 motorway, and about midway between Birmingham and Manchester. I don’t recall them mentioning that, oh yes, by the way, we are more or less in Stoke-on-Trent. I suppose they must have done, but warnings are useless: Stoke cannot be seen when looked at directly. Whether light and sound cannot escape from it, like a geographical black hole, or whether the mind conceals what it does not expect to see, I don’t know. But Stoke can have been there all the time and you just didn’t know it. Just like Ulaan Bator.

If this is a travel book, it is about time that we embarked. I have warned you that we will not be going to Ulaan Bator with an eskimo seamstress, but you will want your money’s worth, and we should have at least an itinerary before we depart this chapter. We should at least have done some packing. First of all, we must have a motive. May be we need to open up a new trans-polar trade route. May be we want to find the untold treasures of the east. May be we have a lunch appointment in Sidcup, or may be we just want to get out of here.

In fact, Eskimos aren’t eskimos any more. They are called Inuit. And the people i grew up calling “red Indians” turn out to be Native Americans, with a hundred individual names that I don’t know. All the old imperial and colonial terminologies that defined Geography for English school children for generations hundreds of years have been replaced with labels and titles that are both new but at the same time much older than the terms that I grew up with, Geography is a wonderfully flexible thing. Most of it was made up on the spot as new things turned up needing names, and it can be altered, it seems, more or less on a whim. I had Canada all shaded in as a country I had visited, and then they established Nunavut, and I had to rub out half of my shading.  In case I forget to mention it when we visit Greenland later in the book, Greenland isn’t called Greenland, either. It’s called Kalaallit Nunaat. That means “the land where the people live”, because the name was made up by  nomadic hunters roaming the arctic who didn’t know that there were places, or people, anywhere else. I think Nunavut means pretty much the same thing, which could become confusing. And while we are at it, just for the record, the Fins call Finland Suomi, and Ulaan Bator isn’t called Ulaan Bator any more, so we couldn’t go there anyway.

The pages of my travel diaries are not for the most part cinnamon-scented. There were sticky cinnamon buns from the Auld Toon Café that we used to fetch in for breakfast when we were students in Aberdeen, but they are memorable more for sticky pink icing than for cinnamon. I used to travel a lot, and have a box full of little note books recounting where I went and what I did. Mostly the entries are cryptic to the point of uselessness as documentary evidence. “September 3rd. Helicopter late because pilot’s head chopped off. Arrive Kangerlussuaq 3pm. Cake. Snow.” Sometimes I seem to have been too busy to write much. I have one diary that just says: “Summer: USA, Greenland, Europe, South America.” May be I forgot to pack a pen. Since I moved to Stoke, I have gradually travelled less and less, until one day I found myself having woken up in the same bed in the same room every morning for two years. They’ve got me. I’m stuck. I’ve hit the Stoke gravity well. I’m never going to leave. I was talking to my next door neighbour yesterday. It’s mid-June, high summer, and he’s telling me that he just took the car in to have the winter tyres changed for summer tyres because he might want to drive somewhere. His car has only clocked up a couple of hundred miles in the last 12 months. He went to Halifax for the day once, and drove around Stoke, and that’s it. Well not me. They don’t get me that way. I left a trail of bread crumbs, or string, or something, and I can find my way out. A motive? Hell, it’s an inspiration! Let’s get going.

What you see up ahead depends on your point of view. To some extent it depends on how you feel about the things that you see falling into the distance in the rear view mirror. People seem to think the mirror is for checking out what is coming up on you from behind, but that’s not so. It is for watching the things you have passed slip further and further back. Watching the train of breadcrumbs fade into the distance. Watching the string roll out from the reel behind you and trail backwards in your wake. Showing you the way back. What would happen if you started to reel some of it back in? Like hauling a long submerged fishing line out of the water, covered in slime and tangled with old boots and bits of wire. And there in the line, fixed like beads, are the places and people and moments of your life. The milestones of the journey, large and small. Some well remembered, others, little colourless lumps encrusted with barnacles, long forgotten. This was your life. But most of it is hard to see. Shadows of the past. You can’t go back. You peer at some unfamiliar shape, some rusted scrap caught in the line, but the closer you look the harder it is to discern its original shape. If you look at it directly it vanishes from sight. It can only be seen when you look slightly to one side; only at the periphery of vision, when you are not sure whether you are really seeing it at all: not sure whether it is memory or imagination.

And what if we turn forwards, looking out across the bow of the ship? The line stretches out ahead of us, dipping under the water like a ferry chain. As you pull it towards you out of the water you pull yourself forward along your path, and as the line comes out, there are the little beads. The jewels and the plastic baubles, people and places and events of your life. Some are new. Some are surprising, but some you recognise. Some you are revisiting. Here is Stoke again. There’s Sir Stanley, older than you remember him. That eskimo girl isn’t showing up again, but look, there’s Aberdeen. There’s Oxford. Look, they knocked down the pastry shop where Marty used to work. Who’d have believed it.  I wonder whatever became of Marty: hey, let’s go and visit. And no sooner have you decided than here comes Marty, hanging onto the line and waving hello. “Long time no see. What brings you?” And then you realize: what comes up from the unseen deep and rises along the line to meet you is partly your choice. It is you that hauls in the line, and you that chooses which of its jewels to seek out and recognise. To revisit. Where you go next is up to you. You can’t go back, but you can go again.

[This entry is an edited version of something I previously wrote on my web page, years ago, but I’ve added here because it fits so well as part of the new  “Places We Have Known” category]

There are many books that recount the astonishing adventures of brave individuals in fabulous locations. I could not write one of those books. My adventures are not so astonishing. I am not so brave. But some of the places I have been are fabulous, and I have one thing in common with those brave authors: the urge to write something about where I have been and something about the adventures – however small they were – that I have had. No, I am not even Prufrock, let alone Prince Hamlet, but although I never saw those attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, I did at least look into the night sky, and sometimes I remembered what I saw.

At least, I think I remembered what I saw. As time moves on, it is increasingly hard to be sure, and it is uncertainty that gives me confidence. Unlike the brave authors of those astonishing adventures I am only going to write about things that happened so long ago that they may as well have been forgotten by now, and if I remember them at all I will be forgiven for remembering them imprecisely.  And because these things happened so long ago, it is inevitable that they happened in places that no longer exist. Yes, Greenland is still there; Iceland, Ecuador, San Francisco, Oxford, Birmingham – they are all still on the map, of course. But what defines a place is not necessarily what you can see on a map. Marcel Proust wrote: “The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience”. Revisiting a road that he had known well many years before, and finding that the people he associated with it were no longer there Proust wrote: “The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at the same moment, for the whole avenue to be altered,”

Enough time has passed, and the cast of characters is sufficiently changed, that, even if you were to visit the site of one of my adventures, it would be gone, in every way but on the map.

I am starting a new category within this blog to house posts for a new writing project. So if you see anything new with the “The Places We Have Known” category you will know it is part of that project, and if you decide to follow that project then you can just look up everything in the “The Places We Have Known” category! If it takes off, I’ll move it into a new blog. If it dies the death, it may as well do so here, quietly, while nobody much is watching. Whether this is part of the empire or part of the termite army remains to be seen. Watch this space but, as always, avoid holding your breath. Why is it called “The Places We Have Known”? It’s from Proust: “The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience.” Like everything, it is about Geography, History and Memory.

Here’s a funny story. Many years ago, way back in the mists of time, I started a painting. Here’s a picture of it.

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I never finished it, and it got shoved away in a pile of junk under a bed in the spare room. It was forgotten. It stayed forgotten for a long time, and then I stumbled across it and was seriously impressed with what a great idea I’d had to invent such a painting. The idea that if we poke our head through the curtain of the sky we will see the clockwork that drives the environmental system: the clockwork of climate change. Look at that clever graph of the long-term climate-change signal! How clever I was.

I got the painting out, dusted it off, and I think I even tweeted a picture of it to show the world my genius. Then I put it back under the bed and forgot it again.

Time passed, and then this week I saw a Twitter tweet in which @JDProuty had posted up a picture  alongside one of his haiku.

Screenshot 2014-12-06 13.45.24

This picture looked familiar and suddenly I remembered mine again. For a moment I thought – my picture! Somebody must have stolen it from when I put it on Twitter! Then I looked closer and saw that this picture was much, much better than mine. Of course. How unfair, they stole my idea and did it better – the injustice. Then I thought: this is unlikely. I asked @JDProuty where the picture came from, and he kindly sent me some information and a link, demonstrating that this was an old picture, of which there were many versions floating around on the internet, and which had a long and interesting history. Certainly it was not mine. It’s even up there in Wikipedia!

Screenshot 2014-12-06 14.10.15

What must have happened, of course, is that long ago I must have seen the original picture and decided to make one of my own. I then forgot the original. I then forgot my own. I then discovered my own. I then  failed to recall the original. Whoops.

Another reminder that where memory, imagination, belief – in fact more or less anything – is concerned, you can’t really ever be quite sure of what comes from where, or of what you have ever really done, or that anything is really new, or that any idea is in fact your own.

Did somebody once say “there is nothing new under the sun”? No, I’m sure that’s one of mine!

I’ve heard a lot of colleagues lately complaining that they can’t teach some particular lesson in exactly the way they used to or exactly the way they want to because this year the room is wrong, or the number of students is wrong, or the weather is wrong. These people seem to depend on the happy conjunction of a precise set of circumstances for their teaching to work, and their teaching plan crumbles into dust if things turn out to be different.

Me, I have a different approach. If the room turns out to be a sloping lecture theatre instead of a bench lab, or if it turns out that there are loads more students than I anticipated, or if lightning storms mean I can’t use the surveying kit, well, we’ll just make the most of it, find a workaround, and do the best we can. Teaching a Geography class is not the same as building a nuclear power station or launching a rocket ship to Mars: it’s ok sometimes to use your professional imagination and make it up as you go along. Is the class too big for you to run your planned seminar session? Break it into buzz groups for a bit. Can’t use the big metal poles for surveying in a storm? Dig out the old-fashioned tape and compass kit and let the students learn a new approach. Projector malfunction? Excellent, you’ll have to improvise with the whiteboard and a piece of cheese!

For example, I decided this year to up-scale my “looking out of the window” exercise from a small-group tutorial activity to a large-group lab exercise. The exercise essentially involves students looking out of the window and making a series of observations about the world outside. Well, I got to the room and found that the windows were all blocked off with security screens, so there was no chance of looking through the window. A disaster? Not at all. If you can’t look through the window, just look around the room instead. Improvising with the unexpected constraint made the exercise more engaging for me as a teacher, and since the students didn’t know what was “supposed” to have happened there was no negative impact on them. They thought they were doing the old “let’s look around the room” exercise!

As a University lecturer, and no doubt in many, many other lines of work, you have to assume that your best laid plan will be laid low by some unexpected circumstance, and you need to be adaptable at zero notice to change what you are doing, invent workarounds, and make the best of whatever you find yourself working with. It’s much like everything else in life: if you spend the available time regretting all the things you don’t have (windows, smaller groups, more equipment…) then you won’t spend it making the most of what you do have.

When you walk into the lecture room, come prepared with a few back-up plans, an open mind, and a willingness to improvise, experiment or explore. After all, that’s what you would expect the students to do, isn’t it?

When we do these exercises where I ask the students what they see through the window, or what they notice in the room where we are sitting, they often ask me what I see; what I notice. I am reluctant to say, in case they think that they should be taking what I see as some kind of a model, which it is not. But of course the exercise is always as instructive for me as it should be for the students. We have just done the exercise where I ask them to list what they notice about the room we are in. What might I write? What did I notice this time around?

First, as always, I notice myself, looking out at the world from inside my body. I am conscious of the familiar window through which I always look. Next, I see the room in its context: a particular, tiny location surrounded by a huge framework  of space, and a particular tiny moment surrounded before and after by a huge framework of time. I make a deliberate effort not to be side-tracked into a discussion of Proust.  Seen in that overwhelming context of history and geography the room reminds me instead of the “Total Perspective Vortex” in Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, which is a device that shows the person connected to it exactly where they are in the huge totality of the Universe – a tiny, tiny dot in space and time, so utterly insignificant relative to everything that ever has existed or ever will exist that the human mind cannot survive the confrontation. I see the room in context with its surroundings as the smallest inside edge of everything that is beyond it, and as the tiniest moment of time swamped before and afterwards by the rest of history. It is as though I am inside a tiny bubble surrounded by an infinite fog. All I see is the inside edge of the fog but I know it stretches out to touch everything else – all the space and time that I can’t see from here. And so, by touching the fog, I touch all of that.

Mervyn Peake wrote a poem “Is there no love can link us?” in which he referred to “this hectic moment, this fierce instant striking now its universal, its uneven blow… this sliding second we share: this desperate edge of now”.  When I look out into the room that is what I see – the sliding second, constantly slipping to the next and leaving itself behind. A moment surrounded by, and connected to, all the other moments.

Having drawn on Mervyn Peake to provide an illustration of the room’s historical context I think of another of Peake’s poems for a spatial context to describe how I notice the room as a tiny part of a bigger whole.  In “Suddenly, walking along the open road” Peake describes how – while walking amongst the “banal normality” of the houses and fields and trees of Wiltshire – he becomes intensely aware of his place on the surface of a ball spinning through space: “the world below my feet became a planet”, “a marble spinning through the universe wears on its dizzy crust, men, houses, trees…”.  As I look out into the room, I notice – and pay attention to the fact –  that the room is situated on that marble spinning through the universe, and I remember how I often used to say that a Geographer should be able to feel the world spinning.

Do I say all that to the students? No, not really. I say: “try to see the room first of all in its broader context. See the big picture. Try to think at different scales.”

Then, having thought a little bit about the big picture, I can move on and start to consider the more local, human scale… Of which, perhaps, more in a later post. Perhaps then I’ll use Proust, or at least a madeleine… or a small piece of fairy cake.

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I tried a new exercise in the opening lecture with my final year “Inspirational Landscapes” undergraduates this week. It was actually a modification of the exercise I’ve written about previously where students have to list the things they see out of the window and we then discuss how we can learn to notice more in the world around us.

In this year’s modification of the exercise I asked the students, who had never done the original exercise and so were approaching it without any prior training, to make a list of the things that they noticed about the room in which we were all sitting. After they had made their own lists I asked them to imagine what I, their geography lecturer, might be noticing about the room: what did they imagine my list would include? Interesting issues arose both from the students’ own lists and from their guesses about my list. Both sets of lists give me something to work with over the remaining weeks of the module, and in the final week I will ask them to repeat the exercise and see if their lists have changed: whether they are noticing more in the world about them after they have done the course and whether they are any better at imagining how the world looks from a different point of view.

The exercise will also serve as a bit of background if I decide to talk to them later on about Xavier de Maistre (1763-1852), who wrote a travel book about a single room, “Voyage Around my Room”, during a period of confinement. That could form the basis of an interesting project in this module, if a student were to pick up the idea. In fact, I already feel a project of my own coming on! Alain de Botton writes about this notion, and discusses de Maistre’s work, towards the end of his own “The Art of Travel” (2002). [see  The Art of Travel at Amazon]

The students’ lists of what they noticed in our lecture room were all remarkably similar. More than 90% of the group listed only items such as lights, chairs, whiteboard, projector, and so on. Almost every item on every list was visual – not many listed anything about the sounds or the smells, let alone the emotions or the social politics. Not many set their observations into any kind of framework or context – nobody pointed out that this was a room with a specific purpose, that it was part of a University, that it was designed in a European style, that it was built specifically at a human scale to accommodate particular human activities. These things were taken for granted and therefore ignored. The students chose not to notice them or, if they noticed them, they chose not to record them on their list. Not many organised their list into a hierarchy or drew it as an interconnected system. Not many started with the big picture and worked down to the detail, or vice versa. Not many compared the room with any other room to help define its essential nature, or its volume, or its history, its comfort, its temperature, or what was happening to them in it. Nobody included themselves in their list of what was in the room. Nobody thought to calculate its weight. But, then, why would they? Nobody mentioned Xavier de Maistre.

Asking the students to list what they imagined I was noticing about the room was a new exercise. I had imagined that asking them to try that new task might push them into thinking of some new things that they had not noticed until I suggested looking from someone else’s point of view, and would therefore enable them to expand their original lists of things they noticed by importing observations that they dreamed up by imagining my view. I thought that even if they only translated their own view of a learning space into what they might imagine was my view of a teaching space, that would be a step in the right direction. I was actually quite interested to see how students at this level would imagine their lecturer’s perspective.

Their lists surprised me.

Other than that they had me looking (and I use that word literally and deliberately) from a different angle, and therefore, for example, had a better view of the windows, the new lists were more or less the same as the lists that the students made for themselves. They thought that they and I, and presumably everybody, would notice the same things about the room. On my behalf they listed again the rows of seats, the projector, the whiteboard… Some of them suggested that I would notice the faces of the students, looking variously interested or otherwise, but for the most part they imagined my attention to be focused on the carpet, the ceiling tiles and the clock. The room they imagined me inhabiting sounded very dull, and from their descriptions I do not recognise the room. I wonder, if they think those are the things that I notice in the world, why do they think I am there talking to them? What could I have to say? My colleagues often ask why students don’t seem to pay much attention to their advice. Based on what these lists indicate about how students imagine their tutors’ perspectives, the ideas or insights that their tutors might have to offer, I think we have the answer. The students don’t seem to imagine that we see much more than them. Perhaps they are right. It is hard to know for sure.

Seeing things well, even from our own point of view, is difficult. Seeing things from somebody else’s point of view is even harder. Realising that the students seem to have no idea what I see when I am in the room with them is quite scary. On the one hand it clarifies for me the distance they have to travel in this module about seeing more in the world around them, but on the other hand it makes me think that when I am talking to them about all the exciting and fascinating things around us they probably have no idea what I am talking about! These things that I am explaining, these things that have inspired me – have the students noticed them? Of course, to the “educator” in me this makes me think of learning opportunities, teachable moments and the need to recognise the perspective of those with whom I am working. Do not take it for granted that they see the same world that you do when you start to explain the world to them.

Me? I see rainbows and unicorns, of course. Doesn’t everybody?

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