The last time I made it to our Pilton writers group was before the trek... Lovely to see familiar faces after such a gap!
Our focus for the evening was encapsulating the essence of a place. Very apt...
Here's my piece (justification - at least in part - that John would like a copy and our emails refuse to talk to each other...)
The atmosphere of a place resides in – what? The landscape? The people? The customs and culture?
And how do you encapsulate the essence of a location?
It’s a fascinating conundrum. For many people, the nature and character of a place is deployed in facts, legions of numbers marching across a page – populations per square mile, ratios of professionals and tradespeople, pollution levels, rail, road, ferry and airport links, main sources of employment, proportions of women to men, birth rates, marriage rates, divorce rates, levels of crime and drug use, analyses of how the industrial bisects with both urban and rural environments.
And that’s before we begin delving into history, where numbers start to breed rather alarmingly out of control.
It also depends who is attempting to represent the place under examination. Are they anthropologist, sociologist, economist, statistician, historian, linguist, cultural commentator, traveller, artist, poet or musician? Are they male or female, what is their age and ethnicity?
My personal opinion is that it’s usually the creatives who capture the essence of place – the poets, writers, artists, musicians. Ian Rankin is unsurpassed on Edinburgh – yet I’d be hard pressed to detail exactly how and why I find his novels the most impressive evocation of place I’ve encountered.
Photographers and film-makers, too, manage to fix something ephemeral about place – what such media miss is the taste and smell of a place, its dust in your nostrils, its fragrances and taints seeping into your lungs. Who can visit Kathmandu without experiencing mixed feelings about the phantasmagoria of smells, from the pyre smoke drifting across from the Hindu temple in unholy alliance with thick, choking incense and the oil-soaked cotton wicking burned as a sacrificial offering to the gods, to the filthy fumes of gridlocked rush hour traffic? Or watch the scavengers, blasé through poverty, wading in the shallows down from the pyres, eyes darting over stones for the glint of a gold tooth, and not feel both fascinated and repelled?
Is it time spent in a place with the aim of cataloguing its character for posterity, or inhabiting somewhere in order to integrate into the community, that qualifies an individual as expert commentator? Or focussing in on particular details, incising the heart of a place apart like a forensic surgeon’s scalpel?
Examining the underbelly of a place can reveal much, but is likely to miss the positive, as will news media coverage (how often does good news make headlines?)
How do you define the culture of a particular place – a facet which surely cannot be easily fixed, but remains in flux as do humans themselves?
Maybe the closest we can get is to recognise that a place is as multifarious as a patient with multiple personality syndrome, as particular as the traveller, critic or commentator assessing its merits and flaws. Place can deck itself in as many outfits as Imelda Marcos had shoes, and still find room for another pair of wild and wacky Camper specials or Prada pumps.
originally part of training/fundraising for the Hepatitis C Trust's Nepal trek. Now, sporadic musings...
- ▼ 2007 (63)