Friday, 23 February 2007

Southern ghosts...

"A place that was ever lived in is like a fire that never goes out. It flares up, it smolders for a time, it is fanned or smothered by circumstance, but its being is intact, forever fluttering within it, the result of some original ignition. Sometimes it gives out glory, sometimes its little light must be sought out to be seen, small and tender as a candle flame, but as certain." - Eudora Welty - introduction to her photos of Mississippi.

I've just come back from staying with my best friend William in Nashville, Tennessee, and we drove down to Memphis and then through Mississippi. I was struck by how the whole state had this atmosphere that felt like what I've been striving for in my work, yet I had never been there before. Where the spanish moss or kudzu clung to the trees it felt like an echo moving its way through the country to land somewhere else and tell its story again, rather than the new plant I knew it to be, almost, in the kudzu's case, suffocating the plant underneath.

It reminded me of how when I was writing my novel "We lay here slowly sinking" I began to realise the hidden parts of the city that were its memories - the echoes, even in empty places, of what had happened there before:

"I am trying to work out how to reach the inaccessible places of the city I saw from the train. They are the link. They seem inhuman, but I am now thinking that they are more so. Than the obvious places in the city that is. This is why nothing came to me in the museum – a place which should have been a monument to memory. I was sure I’d bump into Sam at first, but monuments are too obvious. They are put up to remember something that is not there anymore – like a ritual cleansing so it is okay to forget what something was really like. It has its public image now in stone and carved lettering. And those people I became aware of the other day – the ones almost like echoes – fading into the past they were waiting to come back to them, well then I know it is not in the middle of Oxford Street, or outside the Houses of Parliament that I would ever see them. I’m not sure I would ever notice memory there – it has been shut out by too many people that don’t care. It is in the places where people really spend their time that try and come back – throw their memories out into the city again. Old knocked down Victorian terraces or a scrap of land kids used to play on. And in the houses I can only see the front of, well the people who once lived there could have spent all day sat in the back garden, or gazing at the bits of land only the trains normally touch. They could have traced a few outlines with their fingers or marker pen on the window glass – outlined the cityscape they really knew. These drawings probably got cleaned away, but I like the idea that there are always traces once something has been marked. It’s hard to totally wash things away. Some things intend to be permanent from the start.

I think once people have moved on they leave a little bit of themselves behind, and it is this part which is then free to roam wherever it likes. It is not that there is someone, people as such, freeing the memories I or other people try to leave behind, store away, but rather they are parts of us wandering around the city. The empty buildings and industrial scrap land are now inhabited only by the people who really want to be there. Our echoes. They have come back to see their old area with new eyes, because this is where they really live. And these memories that came before what stands there now, well I’m not sure the new cityscape will be there for them at all – things will go back to how they were before. It is in these places that everyone can meet again. Where I could find you dry and full of things to say. I wonder if you really lived here all along. Whether I have been to your house."

Perhaps and the ghosts so silver, if nothing else, can encourage people to find these hidden echoes in their cities or villages - to look at a place they thought they knew so well and see if they can create its alternative history through its atmosphere. What truly hits you when you visit a certain place? One of my favourite places in London is the Crystal Palace park (you can't really go wrong with ruins, Victorian dinosaurs and a good view - there is also a pedalo graveyard - see if you can find it...), but what I feel is there, is very different to the wonderful but somewhat run down reality, and I'm sure it's because I can sense the different histories this park held. Here is my description of the main character Bella's experience of this place in "We lay here slowly sinking":

"There was a palace here once. They say it was made of crystal. I still think of how it might have shone out over the city and let the whole sky be lighter. Cleared the blackened buildings with light not soapy water. Nothing could be more powerful at cleaning than light. I wonder if the bricks were tinted with sunshine those years. The palace didn’t last long. Burned to the ground. Must have got too hot in all that sunshine. It slipped down the road like a volcano made of molten glass. Not the ones that explode but just melting to the ground, it oozed glitter. Can’t have been big enough to cause that much damage, but I like the idea that the city could have been wiped out by light, have made its own Pompeii out of glass and sunshine."

She creates her own fictional future for the city out of her experience of its past. Maybe with the and the ghosts so silver treasure hunts and miniature books we can try and create more of these imagined futures, to really absorb the city and create new multilayered experiences of how it could actually exist. The next story treasure hunt will be on Hampstead Heath and involve memories of highwaymen, so we shall see...