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We moan a lot when things are done badly, so let’s remember to say “thanks, well done” when things are done well. I have two instances where I would just like to say a little thank you and recognise good service: one from the AA and one from the NHS.

People criticise the NHS (National Health Service, for my non-UK readers), and my little example might seem trivial, but how about this for good service. I was moaning about some random ache or pain, so at 8.30 am my wife phoned our GP’s surgery to see when there might be an appointment for me. The receptionist offered me an immediate appointment and I saw the doctor at 9.15. The doctor thought that since I hadn’t been in for a while, and I am not as young as I used to be, perhaps I should have a bit of an MOT so he put me into the system for a blood test and an x-ray, both of which could be done at my convenience without appointment at the local hospital under the NHS. He printed out the paperwork for me to take away with me,  and I thought that since I was free I might as well go for the x-ray right away. No queue at the clinic, got in without a wait, and by 10am  the x-ray was done. Couldn’t do the blood test because they had to do it when I hadn’t eaten, so we saved that for the next day. Pitched up at the hospital bright and early and the blood tests were all done by 8.30am. So, within the space of 24 hours, we phoned the surgery, had an appointment, went for an x-ray and got a full set of blood tests.  That’s good service, NHS. Well done.

Since the first example was about the doctor giving me an MOT, it seems appropriate that my second example is to do with the car. It’s an old SEAT Ibiza, getting to the age where a few little things are starting to go downhill. Rather like myself. So, anyway, a warning light comes on. I look in the handbook and it says “check with your dealer, this could be serious”. I ring the dealer and they say I can drive it in, but they will charge me £80 just to do a diagnostic test, regardless of whether they find anything to fix! Also, they said, they can’t guarantee that it will be safe to drive it in with that warning light on. Not much help, and a rip off. So I ring the AA (Automobile Association) for advice. “Don’t worry” they say, “we’ll come out and have a look”. The come, they look, they fix it. Turns out that the warning light was just saying that one of the brake lights was faulty. The AA man fixed the brake lights, reset the warning light, and didn’t even charge me for the new bulb. Compare that with the dealer who didn’t mention that it could simply be a faulty bulb and who was going to charge me £80 just to take a look. Yes, I pay an annual membership for the AA, but instances like this make it seem very worthwhile. Well done to the AA: great service. To the dealer: you just lost yourself a potential future customer.

Credit where it is due, and voting with your feet when service is poor. That’s my message for today!

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The Rules of Writing

1. There are no rules of writing.

2. If you want there to be rules for writing, that’s ok. You can make some up.

3. If you follow rule 2, you must delete rule 1.

4. If you delete rule 1, you’re on your own.

 

 

 


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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]

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Three exhibitions of things not quite

I have been working on ideas for some exhibitions focusing around the idea of collecting things that are not quite present. The first exhibition started life under the title “Spaces” and was intended to be a collection of scenes captured at the moment when the important subject had just moved away. Rooms photographed just after the person in whom the photographer was interested had left. Branches just after the bird that a photographer had been stalking has flown out of frame. Moments just after the important moment, which are then redefined to become important themselves. These are the moments immediately after most people have looked away. These are the points where the period of noticing has just ended, and a different period is just beginning. With practice, we can extend our period of noticing and learn to capture these moments. Otherwise they may as well never have existed. We can learn to be not only in the moment, but in the moment after. We can learn to keep noticing.

As that idea evolved it became clear that what I was trying to capture were not just spaces, but moments, and so the working title for that first exhibition became “The moment after”. It was important that these were not images simply of things left behind. I did not want the detritus after the flood, or the circle on the grass after the circus. I was not looking for after-effects, or signs, or evidence. I was looking specifically for absence, rather than for any indication of former presence. Without an accompanying caption or story it would not be apparent what had just been missed, but once the absence was known, the moment after would acquire some significance.

As the idea of “The moment after” moved forward I found myself struggling to capture the notion that these were moments other than, but close to, the important moment. There was always the trap, the danger, of capturing the moment itself, or some shadow of it, rather than the blankness of the moment after. The moments I wanted were obviously not “the President making a speech”; they were not even “the room where the President had made the speech”. Also I didn’t want simply to capture a relic such as “the podium at which the President had stood”. What I wanted was specifically a moment when the president was not there; the speech was no longer being made; nobody was paying attention. These were moments that had escaped and may almost as well never have occurred. They were moments that did not matter other than in that they were adjacent to moments which had. And that idea of adjacency drew my back to my geographical roots, setting me on the path to a new idea: the idea of locations adjacent to, but absolutely other than, important or well-known locations. Here would be an image not of the room where a famous event had occurred, but a room in a building across the street. A room in the unremarkable apartment upstairs from the famous apartment where the event had occurred. These were peripheral locations. Locations to which everybody had their backs turned at the important moment. These locations were simply nearby, which gave me the title for the exhibition: “Nearby”.

“The moment after” and “Nearby” drew attention to moments and places that were close to, but other than, the moments and places that everybody noticed. In trying to identify items for inclusion in those collections I found myself discounting and discarding objects that were neither moments nor locations but nevertheless fell into that same category of “nearly but not quite the thing to which everybody would pay attention”. Hence the origin of my third exhibition: an exhibition of objects that were nearly, but not quite. I would include, for example, a sheet of parchment from the workshop of Leonardo Da Vinci. But it would be a blank sheet that he had never used. Had he done so, it could have been as famous as any work of art, and perhaps the sheet that was above it in the pile in the studio is now behind bullet-proof glass in the Louvre. But this sheet is one on which Da Vinci never drew. And here is a roll of unexposed film found amongst the effects of a famous photographer: had he lived longer, this would have been the roll he used next. Here is a type writer that Hemingway did not use, but would have done if things had been different that year. Here is the car that James Dean did not drive. Here is a piece of fabric from one of the flags that they did not raise that day on Iwo Jima. The title of this third exhibition: “Almost”.

Nowadays, everyone is a curator. I shall curate these moments, places and objects that are not quite. But they may be hard to find. They may be difficult to notice.

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As is true for most people, I suspect, whether they realise it or not, my understanding of most things is pretty hazy. Most technical terms seem to be in one way or another controversial or uncertain. People use the same term in different ways, for different things. And even when you find a term with which you are comfortable, or a concept in which you are confident, that confidence is shaken when somebody declares, with even greater confidence than your own, that most people (probably, you infer, including yourself) have a completely misjudged understanding of what is, they claim, a much more complex idea than most people realise. Entropy is one of those terms. In the old days when I used occasionally to look up its meaning or have conversations about it with colleagues, students or friends (as one did in those days), it was rare indeed for the conversation to pass or for the source to be consulted without there being some reference to the fact that most people got the wrong end of the stick when trying to talk about entropy. Such terms then take on a permanent shimmer of incertitude. Rather like the word “incertitude” one uses the notion of entropy with a deep and unshakable feeling that you may well be using it incorrectly. It is with that feeling, therefore, that I tell myself today how much my blogs, tweets, web pages, facebook groups, Virtual Learning Environment sections and other online presences are tending towards… I hesitate to say it… entropy. After a certain point, unless there was a clear design underpinning the original conception, the management of an expanding web empire becomes a battle to retrieve lost structure or instil some form of order into an increasingly disordered mass. Perhaps if left to its own devices the mass would mutate into some naturally ordered form, like a crystal emerging from a liquid. In my case I see no sign of that. And so I am getting out the shears and having another prune, another hack, and lopping off more or less random extensions of the crumbling, rotting empire. I am turning loose to the barbarians, releasing to the sea, leaving behind in the desert, and allowing to dissolve into the ether a whole wing, a whole battalion, a whole region of the empire. Letting the jungle burst back up through the concrete. Letting the termites do their thing. If ever you knew that there was such a thing as physicalgeography.org.uk that knowledge is redundant now. It’s gone. It’s toast. It’s history. Or, at least it will be soon. Dead domain walking…  For a few minutes my world will feel just a little more simple and a little less disordered.

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I tell my students that Geography is all around them, even in the small everyday places that we take for granted. “The truths,” I say “are not out there, they are in here with us; quietly behind that upturned box or in between our tea time and our evening walk.”

Some of the time I believe what I say. I believe that we can find Geography even in the small places. But sometimes I think: no, that’s just not right.  Geography is in the mountains and the oceans, in the desert and the sky. Geography is in the hearts of explorers and in our stories of far-flung islands. Geography is the giant constellation in which we are the tiny points of light.

But just as when our fathers taught us that there are three ways to melt ice, although we know now that they were wrong, when our time comes to teach our sons and daughters we teach them the same three ways.

We tell them what we must. There is no point in teaching them our truths. They have to learn their own.

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One of the hearts of Geography is the search for a sense of place: the quest to identify, capture, record and represent the essence of a location. Japanese haiku poetry does much the same thing. Sometimes at the scale of a bug under a leaf, sometimes at the scale of a view to the distant horizon, Haiku try to capture in a succinct and tightly formalised way the essence of what a geographer would call a landscape.

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