On Tuesday I attended a talk at the LRB Bookshop about the concept of ‘place’. I went to see and meet Julian Hoffman http://julianhoffman.wordpress.com, who writes beautifully about the landscape in and around where he lives in a mountain village near the Prespa Lakes, Southern Balkans. I was also interested in Philip Marsden’s work: http://philipmarsden.co.uk, and particularly about his relationship with Cornwall, which is where I’ve set my latest novel.
It’s important, I feel, to differentiate Place from Landscape, Place Writing, from Travel Writing. Julian captures this difference by quoting Alan Gussow in the preface of The Small Heart of Things: ‘A place is a piece of a whole environment that has been claimed by feelings.’ Despite his extensive travel writing, Philip Marsden spoke about first discovering this similar idea of ‘place’ when he fell in love with a run-down house in Cornwall that he was destined to own, and which inspired his latest book: Rising Ground: in Search of the Spirit of Place. Julian and his wife left London over a decade ago and settled in a country that they knew very little about, and it was through the process of making it their home that they too have explored what it is to experience ‘place’.
So, what is my place? Place features strongly in my fiction. My first novel was set in Tuscany, which is where my father lived when I was aged 12 to 17, and where I discovered my love of writing. My dad’s Italian villa was very different from my home in London. It was wild and unpredictable; full of music and light; a communal house made up of a patchwork of people from across the world; new members living there each time I visited. I became a teenager in that house, in that, for the first time, I experienced what it was to feel: to fall in love and lust; to need; to be left with anxiety; disappointment; exhilaration and fear. My home in London was a loving comfortable place, but was cast into shadow by my long holidays abroad. I returned there always, glad for the familiarity and safety of a home my mother worked so hard to maintain, but missing and longing for the exoticism of my father’s kingdom. With the start of school the colours around me faded, and a part of me faded with them.
I remember a boyfriend being interested that in my fiction I chose to write about places other than London, when I was so entrenched in this city. Place for me, perhaps, from this early age, was aligned with this sense of ‘other’.
A few years ago I discovered a place in Cornwall, unspoilt and hidden, which I knew I would one day write about. Last year I went back twice with my family and twice on my own. I stood on the wild cliff tops and looked out at the expanse of sea and cried at the beauty of it all. In returning and writing about this landscape I got to know it, and fell in love. When I am there, I am happier than I feel in London; at times I have thought of it as my spiritual home. I am interested in whether this is a kind of transcendence, something that we must just accept, that there are places that move us deeply, just as there are people who affect us in ways we cannot explain or begin to understand. Or whether it’s all about timing: this feeling grows because we feed it; we are ready for a new place, for all that it brings. Of course, these feelings are heightened by the newness of any given landscape: you are on holiday; inspired; it’s somewhere you can make art, or write. It is other. On returning home, I am happy to walk through my front door, to settle back into my routine: the Sunday market where I stop to talk; the friends, the memories.
But why give up one for the other? Julian talks about place being more your relationship with any given space: “Perhaps this is the very essence, and beauty, of place…. The way anywhere can take hold, and burrow deep within. The way it can dance when we allow it to. Which is why these days I prefer to think of place as wherever I happen to be, and the relationship that can be brokered from it.” And surely this is a lesson in life? To love and appreciate what you have. Place is knowing, slowing and appreciating the small things: the rich orange stock brick house across the street, and its harmony with a square of green stained glass on the ground floor window; the leaves that quiver on the plane tree outside my window. The silence I hear despite the Lea Bridge Roundabout just a few streets away. The emerald parakeets that fly just south of me through Hackney Marshes, dipping and swooping from tree to tree.