Monday, 7 March 2016

Spirit of Place and the human spirit

Lent 2016: Day 27

Slowly getting on with Michał Heller's Filozofia przypadku. Strong on history and the mathematics of probability at the one-third mark, not much new in the way of philosophy yet - but I suspect a big wodge is coming soon. The days are overcast and damp, neither cold nor promising hope that soon spring will arrive. It is przednówek, the sixth season, that time of year when in Poland winter has long outstayed its welcome, but when the long, warm days still feel a long way off.

Time to think about Spirit of Place and what it means to the human consciousness. Many of us - not all of us - certainly not me - live in a place not of our choosing. The choice is often economic or default. Yet where we live has a huge effect on our lives, how we feel, how happy we are.

I do not intend to discuss my anomalous memory phenomenon here, only to focus on current-life memories that fall into three categories: triggered, unbidden, and dreams.

The unbidden memories are the most interesting. They are of specific places/times in my life, which for no reason, pop into my head. I can be doing something around the house, working at my computer, sitting in a canteen or office meeting, and *PAFF* - there it is - the perfect simulacrum of how I felt at a precise place, at a precise moment in time.

William Wordsworth described this phenomenon accurately in his poem Daffodils;
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude
Thinking back about the many of these I have had, I can see a pattern. The places, the moments - they repeat themselves frequently. New ones are added to the canon. But they too repeat. They resurface, combine and recombine in dreams. Often my dreams are in a hybrid Warsaw-London, England-Poland setting.

Some places have a strong fascination for me. Watching Sir John Betjeman's Metro-Land on the BBC TV the night it aired, 26 February 1973, had a strong impact on me. I was 15 at the time, and after seeing it, I was drawn to visit, time and time again, many of the places shown in the programme. In particular the far reaches of Metro-land, beyond Aylesbury - out to Quainton Road, Verney Junction and Brill. Another such area is around the Catesby Tunnel in Northamptonshire. I have been many times, it inspires me.

But there are other places that do not return to me; Perivale, Greenford, the A40 Western Avenue - not associated with happy times. Hanwell, Ealing, most certainly. They come back to me. Not Perivale.

Poland has vast appeal to me - the chance to travel out into the Polish countryside in high summer. I cannot wait. Warsaw, Gdańsk, Wrocław, Kraków... and Łódź rising - Polish cities I love.

I feel with each journey, I am laying down markers, preferences, familiarities; they return to me - not just 10,000 daffodils, tossing their heads in sprightly dance - many scenes, rural, urban, sunny, snowy, foggy *PAFF! A foggy morning, Elthorne Park, Hanwell, autumn 1969, on my way to school, Boston Manor Station on the Piccadilly Line, posters for the musical film, Paint Your Wagon on the platform... that exact feeling I had that foggy morning.
Pilgrimage, the journey to a place of cult or veneration, but why that particular place? What was it about the spirit of that place, its klimat, that determined that it should be a shrine, a place of pilgrimage? To what extent is the journey as important as the destination? The notion of topophilia is relevant.
Why does our brain store and then reform memories of place and time? What evolutionary advantage does this phenomenon bestow upon us? Like beacons, drawing us back, memories that return and strengthen association of mind and place.

Follow-up - Tuesday 8 March: Last night I dreamt of that curiously familiar amalgam of England and Poland; an estate of white council houses on the edge of the Vistula escarpment in Lancashire...

See also - label Spirit of Place (scroll past this post)

This time last year:
Poland's road death toll falls but remains too high

This time two years ago:
Putin: tactical genius, strategic failure

This time four years ago:
My photos turned into beautiful watercolours

This time five years ago:
Silver birches and blue skies

This time seven years ago:
Jeziorki's wetlands in late winter (2009)

This time eight years ago:
Jeziorki's wetlands in late winter (2008)

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