Losing Your Place
Sue Clifford and Angela King
The main players fall silent, the filming is over, the recording is finished, but the sound technician has hushed everyone to get some 'atmos'. Coughs, car noise echoing off the warehouses, birdsong, boards creaking, trees breathing in the wind, these are the sounds of the everyday, so particular to this place, that to cut the film and add studio voiceovers needs an underlay of this local atmosphere in order to ensure continuity and authenticity.
That elusive particularity, so often undervalued as 'background noise', is as important as the stars. It is the richness we take for granted.
How do we know where we are in time and space? How do we understand ourselves in the world?
Common Ground has been exploring and developing a new concept, that of local distinctiveness. It is characterised by elusiveness, it is instantly recognizable yet difficult to describe; It is simple yet may have profound meaning to us. It demands a poetic quest and points up the shortcomings in all those attempts to understand the things around us by compartmentalising them, fragmenting, quantifying, reducing.
Local distinctiveness is essentially about places and our relationship with them. It is as much about the commonplace as about the rare, about the everyday as much as the endangered, and about the ordinary as much as the spectacular. In other cultures it might be about people's deep relationship with the land. Here discontinuities have left us with vestiges of appreciation but few ways of expressing the power which places can have over us. But many of us have strong allegiances to places, complex and compound appreciation of them, and we recognize that nature, identity and place have strong bonds.
We sometimes forget that ours is a cultural landscape. It is our great creation: underpinned by nature, it is a physical thing and an invisible web. It is held together by stonewalls and subsidies, ragas and Northumbrian pipes, Wensleydale sheep and halal butchers, whiskies of Islay and Fenland skies, bungalows and synagogues, pubs and the Padstow Obby' Oss, round barrows and rapping, high streets and Ham stone, laver bread and Devon lanes, door details and dialect Places are process and story as well as artefact, layer upon layer of our continuing history and nature's history intertwined. Places offer an exposition of their evolution, given sensitive development and barefoot education, everyplace is its own living museum, dynamic and filled with sensibilities to its own small richnesses. These are places we know when we are in them. Meaning is entrapped in the experience of change, symbolisms and significance cling to seemingly ordinary buildings, trees, artefacts. Particularity based in nature on the foundations of geology and climate, has diverged with the alchemy of life, the articulation of the social and economic demands of successive societies, the narratives of myth and legend, and the ethical and cultural variations over the time. Places are different from each other.
We have long recognized the importance of diversity. Most travel guides, geology books, volumes on architecture and language begin by asserting how varied our land and people are. Yet we have been party to a massive burst of homogenisation, some of it in the name of conservation, which is bleaching the richness from our lives.
The variegation which we and nature have created in sharing our development seems to appeal to our eye for richness. We may scientise our interest in biodiversity, offer critical appraisal of stark geometric buildings, intellectualise arguments about differentiation being 'a good thing', but the truth is that we revel in detail. Subtlety and complication, flavours which are not immediately apparent please our palate/palette.
We are able to pick out a face in football crowd, see a tiny yellow bird high up in a tree of a hundred thousand leaves, we can place a wine by its taste and sneeze at things we cannot even smell, we have acute faculties which enjoy the challenges of complexity. We often know and feel things for which words cannot be found, despite having one of the richest languages in the world. We are emotional, subjective beings, with memories and with interests in the future, as well as the here and now. We are provoked to reverie by the smallest of things.
How then has it happened that we can stand in many high streets, factories, fields or forests and feel we could be anywhere? Why does MacDonald's force upon our high streets an idea born in corporate strategy meetings thousands of miles away? Why do we have huge brown signs from motorways telling us where to find Robin Hood Country and the White Cliffs Experience? Why are we planting the same trees everywhere? Why are only mountains 'beautiful' landscapes, and big and old buildings worthy of care and attention? Why does the pursuit of standards now result in standardisation. Apples, bricks, sheep and gates, all of which have had generations of careful guided evolution creating qualities related to conditions of locality and need, no longer show the differentiation which whispers rather than shouts where you are.
Partial comprehension of loss has begun to force meaningless, token choices upon us. We are offered a Chiltern or a Mayfair or a Wensleydale house on the same housing estate or in Devon, Nottinghamshire or Cleveland. Difference for difference sake with no reflection, no interest in craftsmanship, appropriateness or locality, debases all that has gone before, and pays no homage to the extraordinary potential latent in the achievements of our time. Anyway they are all made out of red brick (from the same brick company) with hardwood windows (from the same rainforest) with the same front doors and the streets have the same paving and kerb stones, the curves and cul de sacs mirror each other, the gardens have the same cypresses and whatever the garden centres are selling this year.
While homogenising forces have been at work so have enriching ones. Our culture, or cultures have hardly ever been static. In our context a dynamic culture has been a permeable culture, an open work. The many peoples who have settled in Britain over the ages, and in the last few decades, have brought ideas, foods, music, festivals, languages, cultural differentiation which far from diluting the already rich mix has added new dynamism, and new layers of particularity to different places.
Dilution has come through closed minds, aggressive assertion of national and corporate identity, blind searching for the single perfect barley strain, the imposition of ideas exported or imported without reflection (in the architec-tural context, the exchange of ideas need never have resulted in a single style of buildings across the world, lacking any referential humility to place, climate and culture).
The suppression of the Gaelic and Welsh languages must be a loss to us all. In Welsh there are at least 40 words for rain, one example of the differentiation of the common place, which comes from generations of close dialogue with nature.
BBC English has a lot to answer for. Bill Bryson has said about the language 'if we should be worrying about anything to do with the future of English, it should be not that the various strands will drift apart, but that they will grow indistinguishable'. He reminds us that 'English... has been... immeasurably enriched by the successive linguistic waves that washed over the British Isles. But it is closer to the truth to say that the language we speak today is rich and expressive not so much because new words were imposed upon it as because they were welcomed'.
This latter sentiment offers a way forward.
Welcoming rather than imposition demands working together. Recognizing there is a need to reinforce the qualitative aspects of our everyday lives, Common Ground has been working to offer people ideas, information and inspiration to affect change for the better in their own localities. The work on local distinctiveness aspires to arousing diverse community based actions, as well as creative and responsive policy making and practice in voluntary organisations, local and national institutions and local authorities and the corporate sector too.
To offer formulae would be to deny the basic philosophy that we are expressing. Provocations, examples and questions are helpful, we assert that local formulation is always necessary, and that much is to be learnt from exploration with local people. There are many ways in. The creation of an ABC of your own locality is an exercise which brings together all manner of things ordered only by their name, strange juxtapositions jolt complacency. Everything begins with equal status in the gathering, out of which discussion can emerge over what is important to whom, why, when and where.
Local distinctiveness can encompass so many things and affects everyone. In exploring the idea Common Ground has found it useful to work around key words, which allow reinterpretation for every different circumstance: detail, particularity, patina, authenticity. We are talking of quality in the everyday. Because these things are not straightforward or easy to pigeonhole, often involve emotional attachment and are hard to communicate they are treated as 'soft' by the media. Because they are impossible to put a money value on or to explain through equations, these unquantifiable 'intangibles' are likely to be marginalised by the professionals. Debate rages, and decisions arc taken which often leave out the very things that make life worth living.
Brody in describing the decision making culture of the Athapaskan hunter captures the spirit of what we are trying to say: 'To disconnect the variables, to compartmentalise the thinking, is to fail to acknowledge its sophistication and completeness. To make a good, wise, sensible... choice is to accept the interconnection of all possible factors, and avoids the mistake of seeking rationally to focus on any one consideration that is held as primary. What is more, the decision is taken in the doing : there is no step or pause between theory and practice.'
Closer to our world, scientists of many disciplines engaged in the fascinating unveiling of ideas around Chaos theory are moving away from reductionism towards looking at the whole and are acknowledging that the objective and subjective are less clear cut. Ideas of scaling form an important part of their revelations.
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