The heart of place

DSC_9010On Tuesday I attended a talk at the LRB Bookshop about the concept of ‘place’. I went to see and meet Julian Hoffman, 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:, 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.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. This is a lovely, searching post, Lily, and so elegantly expressed. I’m particularly drawn to your evocations of your time in Tuscany and those formative, founding memories. Although I grew up in the suburbs of Ontario, we returned to the north-east of England most summers while I was a teenager and those visits were imbued with an extraordinary quality of the exotic for me. This is Hartlepool that I’m talking about!

    But the place, and my experiences there – everything from the unusual accents of family to finding a shark on the sands to hearing the completely unknown music that my cousins were listening to (my eldest cousin played Red Army Blues and Don’t Bang the Drum by The Waterboys for me and I’d never heard anything that moved me as much until that time) – was mysterious to me. Those memories linger long and I sometimes wonder whether any place that is experienced at such an age that is outside one’s usual experience would carry such rich significance.

    There’s an idea in Chinese thought that we all have two homes: the one we were born in and the spiritual home we are destined for. You rightly point out that certain places move us deeply, and those places are unique to each of us. But perhaps, through an attentive awareness, we have more than one spiritual home. Maybe there’s the possibility that we have a number of spiritual homes, scattered about the world or hidden nearby, waiting for us to claim them.

    “Place is knowing and slowing,” so beautifully stated. Thanks for the thoughtful read this morning and for the generous and heart-warming mention in your post, Lily. Looking forward to continuing the conversation!

    Best wishes,


  2. lilydunn says:

    Thank you, Julian. I agree that the intensity of feeling that one can have for a place in one’s formative years can perhaps be anywhere different from home. Teenagers are so awake and so open to new experience… so many bubbling emotions. I remember feeling terribly nostalgic for that time in Tuscany, for years, as if I had left a part of myself there in those beautiful hills. The response we have to place now that we are older is different, more diluted, and less insane, probably, but, as you say, if we open our eyes and look around we can still find a special connection to many different places. Thanks for your lovely comments! Happy New Year. xx

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