I’ve lost my muse. I can’t do it anymore. Not actually writing of course – otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this – but my ability to identify with places, the very thing that made writing this blog (and I hope reading it) such a delight.
In a post earlier in the year I described how I had realised that my attachment to places was very largely fuelled by my imagination – based on what I’ve read, films or TV programmes I have seen, or even songs that I have heard. And once I understood that I was attaching to somewhere created in my imagination – or in many cases originally in somebody else’s – the hold that place attachment had over me was gone. And I can’t get it back.
Once I stopped looking at the buildings or the landscape and imagining a world that fitted them, I suddenly became more aware of the actual people all around me. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people I didn’t know and would be unlikely ever to meet. Instead of the familiar friend of a place I thought I understood there were all these strangers. Perhaps that was why engaging with the place rather than the people had been so attractive to me. It had helped me make sense of the otherwise unknowable. Although it never really worked – because people would behave in all manner of ways which didn’t fit the place of my imagination, causing me all kinds of dislocation. And now that I have started looking at the people they take all my attention. Suddenly the place seems unimportant.
I still have the occasional lapse mind you, and here’s an example:
I was in Galway in August for a family wedding. I’d always wanted to go – due in no small part to the evocative lyrics of one of my favourite songs – the Saw Doctors’ iconic “N17” – all stone walls, green grass and homesickness for their childhood in the county.
Today the west of Ireland is notorious for the ease with which you can build yourself a house in open countryside, and no more so than in Galway. The beautiful coastline of Connemara is littered with identical L shaped modern bungalows, in quarter acre gardens, paying about as much heed to the local vernacular as a mobile phone mast. This was not the Connemara of my imagination. To find that I had to visit the current exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. Here sketches and drawings from before the famine, by English artist William Evans of Eton, showed Connemara as it was supposed to be – all thatched stone cottages by the strand, wisps of smoke rising from the chimneys, and fisher folk mending nets outside.
The reality of course is that the modern bungalows of Connemara provide second homes for the better-off in Ireland, whereas across the Irish Sea planning policy means that the humble homes of the fisher folk, suitably replumbed, rewired, centrally heated and armed with a high speed broadband connection, have to do the job instead. The two places looks different, but their demographics would, I suspect, have rather more similarities. It’s only a suspicion – as I hardly know anybody with a second home in either place, and I didn’t look up the figures.
Of course creating this kind of place identity is the bread and butter of innumerable tourist board marketing campaigns. The tourist destination as film set, with us and our families the stars of the picture, is a vital part of the sales pitch. And in many cases the pitch is that of a place where somehow time (if not the bathroom fittings) has stood still. A place to reconnect with a simpler time where people lived in harmony with their surroundings, and by extension with each other. And I, who haughtily thought of himself as immune to product marketing campaigns (with the possible exception of Levi 501s), had been hooked, reeled in and stitched up like a kipper.
But now it’s gone. I can’t attach myself to places like that anymore even if I try. I know it for what it is – my imagination attaching itself to an inanimate object. And I am bereft. Shorn of access to my emotions I have no tools to assess the places I visit.
Which begs a rather important question. Are there actually any objective or empirical measures of the quality of places, or are they simply the “rationalisations” of the emotions that well up within us? For some advice on this I turned to Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink” (subtitled “The power of thinking without thinking”). One of the basic arguments in the book is that our immediate judgement (in the blink of an eye) will often result in a decision which we are happier about than one reached by sifting through all available information. And he uses Sigmund Freud, the father of the unconscious, to back him up. Freud described his practice when making decisions like this:
“When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come from our unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves. In the important decisions of our personal life we should be governed, I think, by the deep inner needs of our nature.”
And perhaps that’s all any of us are doing, when we identify places which we like and places which we don’t – we are merely rationalising our immediate unconscious response to them. Perhaps the rest is merely fine words and political calculations (well – and Town Planning degrees of course). But come on – I hear you say. What about all the actions which make cities more liveable, more sustainable, and generally improve our quality of life. There is good and bad, isn’t there?
Well perhaps. But the quality and value of almost every place is a subject of deep contention among experts. The results of this year’s Economist Liveability Index of world cities rather backs this up. It concludes that nine of the top 10 most liveable cities in the world are in Canada and Australia, where there is almost endless room to expand, and low-density living is the norm. But of course they are also two of the countries with the highest per capita contribution to carbon emissions on the planet. Their cities may be very nice to inhabit, but they certainly can’t offer us a template of how we should all live if you have even a passing belief in the settled opinion of climate scientists.
So maybe whether you like to be surrounded by gleaming skyscrapers, tree-lined avenues of neat semis or stone and thatch villages in the midst of peaceful fields may depend more on your upbringing, the books you’ve read and your cultural milieu – which you feel first as unconscious emotions and then express as rational speech – than on any objective measure of good or bad.
I still know what I like. But I now find that it doesn’t provide me with a sound basis for making any broader judgement about places. After all, my imagination won’t be the same as yours, as we will all have read different books.
So this is my final post. I am off to mourn the loss of my place-attachment. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed writing the blog, and it has taken me – geographically, intellectually and emotionally – to more places than I could have imagined. But this seems to be the right point to bring it to an end.
I hope you have all enjoyed taking the journey with me…