Once Upon A Place

My daughter had gone very quiet.

She was driving a train. A simulated train, that is, using one of those miraculous apps on an iPad. But she had discovered something which unsettled her somewhat.

As long as you stayed where you should be, driving the train, minding your own business, you would not notice anything out of the ordinary. But if you dared think laterally, and branch out to explore the space beyond the railway track, you were in for a strange experience.

“Mummy,” she said, swivelling the iPad round to face me, “that is what cyberspace looks like.”

She was bothered. And I could see why: because beyond the track and the fields and the pylons, there was a grey pixellated no-man’s-land, an interminable void, a nothingness.

There is nothing quite so unsettling as nothing at all.

I once looked death in the eyes. A routine op went wrong, yada yada yada. I was rushed by wailing ambulance to a place where they could operate, without ceremony, surrounded by what seemed like hundreds of medical staff, and lit by the unforgiving lights of the operating table.

And I thought clearly: well, this could be it. I am just going to have to let go of this life. I may or may not wake up.

Nothing for it. Into the breach. Except that the breach was not a bright light, or singing angels, or a comforting presence.

It was like Maddie’s cyberspace.

Nothing. Nowhere.

Place is more vital, more part of our life blood than we can imagine. What is life without it?

My good friend Side View and I have a recurring theme in our work. For she lives in South Africa, in the great open spaces, where the evidence of man is there, but it is lighter-touch. The creatures of the wild still own so much of that golden land; and not only creatures, but the landscape itself remains vast and open and untouched. Man has walked there, but not indelibly.

We compare notes every now and then: Side View says she could never live in Britain because the noise of the history beneath one’s feet – the layers of happening everywhere you went – would be overwhelming.

Time and space, they’re linked. For each space is defined by how time has treated it. Have you ever stood in a room or place with an indefinable sense that something has happened there? Β Is that what ghosts are? Shadows of those layers glimpsed in our time?

Andra Watkins has been writing a series based on a visit her father made to London in 1957.Β She used her time in London to find the exact spot he took each photograph, and take one of her own. An absorbing journey. And an experiment in lifting the layers of place.

Because those layers lie thick in London, dense like puff pastry, some layers fragile and broken, others robust and visible. I have grown up in England, with an increased tolerance for them; and perhaps an increased dependency, too. Nothingness means not just a lack of any more time, but a loss of all those layers which have come before I existed.

This weekend we celebrate a queen who has presided over sixty years of this temporally crowded island. We will wave flags and hold parties, and we will carouse. But as I said to my friend Penny from LifeOnTheCutoff the other day, when she recalled the Queen’s visit to Chicago in 1959: the question we will ask later is: “Where were you when….”

The where comes first.

The place is the thing, whereby to chart the milestones of a queen.

Written in response to Side View’s weekend theme: Once Upon A Place, in a Time Long, Long Ago


40 thoughts on “Once Upon A Place

  1. I’m impressed that Maddie has found an area of nothing, Kate: that’s actually something in a time where virtually everything else has been explored / discovered. I think I’m reaching the point where I’ve forgotten where I was when… and that is quite frightening!

    1. Ah, that’s why I blog, Tom. Providing WordPress does not have a meltdown I can riffle through to the right date and hey presto: that’s where I was.
      Lovely to have you back πŸ™‚

    1. It is. I have a crackpot obsession with the relationship between space and time, Tilly. I wish I had trained as a physicist, and had enough maths to work it out for myself. I have the most absurd feeling, a bit like that one when you are in an exam and can almost but not quite touch the answer. Like Newton and his alchemy, I am seduced by hunch.

  2. Kate, I am fascinated by all of this and by the ‘Build Up’ too. I can hear your valuing something I do not like at all, so hope you do not object to me referring to you in my own anti-jubilee post.

    1. Not at all, Elspeth πŸ™‚ Everyone has their own way of handling these festivities and there’s no rule that says one must enjoy them. My perspective, I suppose, is that of a journalist: I’m not that keen on it all myself, but I am set on recording the event faithfully because it really is history in the making. And who knows if one day my account might appear, centuries after my death, on some history exam syllabus or other πŸ˜€

  3. I’m glad you survived your terrifying ordeal, Kate.
    Side View’s point about the layers of history being overwhelming is a very interesting one. I’d never thought of it like that. I live in a place where I am very aware of the history of generations of my family, but I’ve always imagined that living somewhere without that would make me feel somehow cut off in a strange sort of way. I’m not saying it will never happen, I just think it will feel very different living with someone else’s history and not knowing about it with anywhere near the same depth. But all these things are what make life interesting! Enjoy your long weekend. πŸ™‚

    1. Heather, I think you are absolutely right: hose of us who have grown up with the layers of time in our souls could no more do without it than a bee could manage without wings. But some were born unconstricted by the layers, or less constricted anyway. And that is normal life to them. I suppose so much history might feel like putting on a corset πŸ˜€

      1. Having re-read my reply I thought it might seem a little ambiguous… I didn’t mean the history was the only thing that could make life interesting, I meant that it is the VARIETY that makes life interesting, the fact that we all have such different perceptions and reactions to these things and I think that is to be celebrated. I certainly don’t think that knowing the history of where you are is a pre-requisite, it is all very personal and effects everyone differently. πŸ™‚

  4. Being in a place with hundreds and thousands of years of history always puts me in awe of what has come before. How were all these structures built, art created and civilizations launched? How after these passages of time we still seek simple peace in our lives.

    1. What an interesting thought, Lou. We’re still looking for the same things in our lives, as you say: peace and happiness. But the problem solving, perseverance, dissembling, good and evil that have come before: there are too many stories to count, aren’t there?
      So nice to have your thought processes back with us. Mr Mello πŸ™‚

  5. I personally need all of that history beneath my feet, it is me, it is what I am made of, what I am all about, buried deep within me. I could never live in a new/young country, I need these roots.

  6. This is great. The bit about how important the “where were you..” is to all of us really makes you think.

  7. Imagine waking up to find the Who, What, When, Where, and How has evaporated into the veil of Amnesia (or Alzheimer’s).

    WHERE would one hang one’s hat?

    Terrific post and take on the theme . . . the WHERE does come first.

    1. Thanks Nancy: you’re so right: it must be inordinately distressing to have the where disappear. It’s very hard, and love is the only answer. A long time ago I wrote a Christmas post about a man who became famous, and his wife developed Alzheimer’s. What he had to say about his relationship with her, even at the end, was so very heartening. The who was sometimes there once again, right until the last. It’s at http://wp.me/pX1we-tJ

  8. You are so right about where. I can remember almost photographically some of the things that happened to me throughout my life, but they are always tied to where I was. If I can’t reach the where, I can’t access the memory.

    I too live in a place with layers of history, albeit newer ones. We blur so fast through life, and I’m certainly guilty of not stopping to appreciate the where in my day-to-day life enough, of taking my surroundings for granted. I read this post earlier this morning, before my bridge walk. I stopped on the bridge – certainly not good for my exercise regimen – simply because I saw a lone sea gull fishing. They’re so graceful, the way they ride up into the air on an arc and dive.

    1. Thank you for your posts this week πŸ™‚ The gull: sometimes one moment stands still so we can take it in. I wonder of that is what this week has been about.

  9. As a young woman, raised in the open prairies of Canada where our First Nations hardly touched the blades of grass, standing on any street corner in London short circuited my imaginings. “How many layers of history exist – right here – under my feet?” The youth of Western Canada and my tender sprouting did not prepare me for the awe that I felt.

    1. It is interesting, Amy, the contrast between the first nations and this one: those who chose to live with the land and those who chose to impose themselves onto it, and dominate it. Perhaps that is civilisation, and to me the dominated land is homely. But those who were first: I wonder if we can sense them when we are where they have been?

      1. Sense them? Moccasined souls silently slipping by our senses. Of course, since the First Nations people live under a strong influence of their spirit ancestors, it was what the Europeans tried to carve out of them so they could fill the holes with religion.

        From my observation, for these natives, spirit worship wasn’t all simple and loving. Some of it was, and still is, showing respect out of sheer terror over the consequences of not!:D

        However, when I was putting together a School District budget for our very progressive Nisga’a Nation (pronounced Niss-gah) in Northern BC, I keenly sensed a deep history during my 3 incredible weeks in their pristine wilderness. That may have been due to the pride they carry for themselves.

        Did you know that every figure on a totem pole is depicting the spiritual experience of someone in their clan? The person tells the story to the carver and the carver brings out the figure on the pole. Only the person who had the spiritual experience is allowed to ever tell the story.

        Oh, one more fascinating thing about the Nisga’a – the parents’ role is simply to love their children. It is the duty of the aunts and uncles to teach skills and administer discipline. Of course, parents are likely someone’s aunt or uncle so everyone ends up with disciplinary duty. But imagine being a parent and only having to love! No wonder these people are incredibly respected and progressive.

  10. There is so much history around us but I think we become more aware of it as we ourselves become older…more historic with fewer years ahead and more behind on the path that we tread. I’ve certainly become more aware of the history of my local area over the last 10 years and each new discovery leads to more questions about the past. The history adds a sense of stability – a sense of belonging and permanence to an ever changing world. Interesting post Kate πŸ™‚

    ps. What train sim was your Daughter driving?

  11. Absolute nothing is what I used as the ultimate horror in my Forest Circle Quest – for that is surely a worse end than simply returning to the elements.
    You are so right about place – time always needs to be associated with one, indeed.
    We have been watching the Thames scene – if I had tried to swim across it today, I would have been run over any number of times! There is no nation to match the Brits when it comes to pomp and ceremony with all the stops pulled out.

  12. Brilliant piece Kate! We are who we are because of “the layers of happening” . I have been feeling an urgency to connect with those layers as well πŸ™‚

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