Nest

Once, on a cold winter’s morning, in a half-empty train heading east, you peer through the grime and frost cracked window. A slope of field blurs into fog and then, as the train slows, a small, dilapidated lineside hut creeps through the mire then withers, like a ghost, back into the past. Was it ever there? Or did you imagine the carious window-frame, a few shards of glass enduring like shattered teeth, the cracked, lichened walls, flat roof and chimney stump? How, on all those journeys down this desolate, fen-bound line, did you never see it? Or, maybe, like a latter-day Watson, you saw but failed to observe.

Perhaps then you slip through the years to imagine three men — railway platelayers —walking through the same bleak December roke, hands like frozen clods of earth, backs sore and bent. For them, the hut, now restored to its simple and austere glory, bestows warmth, safety and conviviality. The stove lit, a kettle boiling, the fug of damp clothes and tobacco smoke. A place of conversation and companionship, and of stories I suspect, no doubt some as long as the rails that stretch to east and west. Tales of tracks repaired, a signalman’s mistake and the inevitable railway hauntings.

And, of course, this platelayers’ hut occupies a liminal space. It stands ‘off the geographic grid’, squatly alone on the border between rail and field. This hut is on the line, an edgeland structure that is strangely both visible and invisible. A mundane, graffitied ruin that elicits rarely a first glance, let alone a second.

This liminal place is one of withdrawal and seclusion yet also one of comfort and security. As such, it evokes Gaston Bachelard’s image of the nest. He writes of the well-being felt when seated in front of the fire while bad weather rages outside. This is the primitiveness of the refuge, where the creature ‘huddles up to itself, takes to cover, hides away, lies snug, concealed’ (Bachelard, 1958:112).

In my research on the spaces where organisational stories are told, certain sites — pubs, toilets, a street corner, an enclosed booth in a staff café — drew similar words of description. Participants spoke of them as ‘safe’, a ‘haven’, ‘enclosed’, ‘private’. These are the platelayers’ huts rebooted for a modern age.

And one other space was also chosen — that of the home office. Here stories were consumed and exchanged via phone, instant message and videoconference. Yet the office itself was described as a ‘safe shut away hole’ — somewhere ‘tucked away’ where one participant ‘longed to be’. Like the nest, these home offices, are infused with the domestic and the familial. They are refuges of concealment and security.

Yet, there is a shadow. Bachelard identifies a paradox: a nest ‘is a precarious thing, and yet it sets us to daydreaming of security’ (Bachelard, 1958: 122). This unsettling fragility is reflected by Edward Thomas who writes of the ‘summer nests uncovered by autumn wind, /some torn, others dislodged, all dark’. These nests ominously ‘hang like a mark’ (Thomas: 43)

And perhaps this ‘mark’ prefigures our own experience over the past year. For some, homeworking has seen the nest invaded, its sanctuary compromised. Harriet Shortt and Michael Izak write of the ‘contested home’ — a space, previously hidden except to those we invite in, but now exposed to the unwelcome Zoom gaze of many. And those ‘guests’ may include those we would not normally beckon across the threshold, indeed some we may actively dislike (Shortt and Izak, 2020: 45).

This unease may also arise from the very betwixt and between nature of the videoconference. We occupy two spaces simultaneously. We are both in the nest and outside it. One is a lived space of memory and narrative. It is also a material space of physical sensation — the feel of a chair against the back, the sound of a passing car, the smell of bacon cooking from the kitchen downstairs.

The other is a virtual space where senses are peculiarly compromised. The border controls of this territory demand we leave touch and smell behind while sight and sound are eerily degraded. Here we perceive fuzzy, corroded images of disembodied heads and shoulders as incorporeal as colleagues glimpsed through a Victorian, London pea-souper. Meanwhile, voices are randomly subjected to echo, reverb and delay as if this in a land governed by an erratic, and occasionally malignant, sound engineer.

Ares Kalandides suggests that virtual space is not a place, in the sense of a meaningful location. In engenders no sense of place and, consequently, drains emotions — not through consumption but numbness (Kalandides, 2020). In this world, we have no memory, no associations. We are insensate.

And yet…Maybe there is a way to merge these two worlds. Some have embraced the idea of the ‘silent meeting’. Having invited a colleague to a videoconference you then work silently together — as if your homes have been conjoined in this third, virtual space. Apart but together. And like the platelayers, warm and secure in their lineside hut, you and your colleague can, in your silent meeting, enjoy companionship while seeking shelter from the metaphoric storms that rage without. A virtual nest spun from intention and desire, yet still, maybe, one that protects and sustains.

Bachelard, G. (2014[1958]) The poetics of space. Penguin.

Kalandides, A. (2020) ‘Online meetings: a global sense of ‘virtual place?’, Institute of Place Management (IPM) Blog, September 16. Available at: http://blog.placemanagement.org/2020/09/16/online-meetings-a-global-sense-of-virtual-place/ (Accessed, 5 December 2020).

Shortt, H. and Izak, M. (2020) ‘The contested home’, in Parker, M. ed. Life after Covid-19: the other side of the crisis. Bristol University Press.

Thomas, E. (2008) The annotated collected poems. Bloodaxe.

Signpost

The signpost is a liminal artefact. It points from where we are to where we dream of being. We are both here — at this grassy triangle on the edge of a Norfolk village — and (in our imaginations) at the destinations it advertises. And such fingerposts help us navigate in more ways than one. With their help we slip between modes of ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘now’ and ‘then’, ‘when’ and ‘where’. The signifier roots us in one place and time; the signified in another.

And such dissonance and indeterminacy can bring comfort. Imagine a long journey home, the grey, wet motorway unfolding before you as the sun falls behind a distant cooling tower. This is Augé’s non-place where identity is dislocated and our sense of self and community denuded. We drive through alien(ating) landscapes, bypassing towns, villages and hamlets in ‘a constant reminder of what we might be missing by choosing to travel in this way’ (Andrews, p.63).  Then, through the windscreen wiper, we glimpse a sign bearing the name of a familiar road or destination. Associations of home and community invade the non-place transforming it into a space ‘rich in mundane comfort and sensations’ (Edensor, p.151). We find ourselves travelling not just roads of asphalt, metal and neon but highways of the imagination replete with emotion and memory.

Our fingerpost is also materially indeterminate . Bloomed with lichen and scarred by blistered paint and mouldering wood, it transmutes with each season, frost and storm. Like the ghost sign and the ruin, it is in a ‘constant state of decay and unmaking’ (De Silvey and Edensor, p.472). And for these signs pictured, an ultimate ‘unmaking’ is imminent as the local council has announced their ‘sympathetic’ replacement. Until that day, as wood and paint dissolve, the metal lettering endures. An obdurate shout of defiance proclaiming the villages they signify — Ashwellthorpe, Hapton — as the world around wastes and falls away.

This power of fingerposts and signs is immense. Think how new, invasive notices have lately transformed our spaces of work, leisure and consumption. These signs of instruction, reminding us where to walk and the need for sanitiser or masks, may reassure but also unsettle and perturb. Like the fingerposts, they dis[place] us. They signify not just an unfamiliar present, but a nostalgic past. For emphasising what we are now, they remind us what he have lost. And what are stories of nostalgia but those of loss (Gabriel, 2000)? But, like a cracked and ill-enchanted kaleidoscope, such signs also meld the present with a foreboding future. Here, threats we have yet to predict creep and slouch towards us. Such signs are both consoling and minatory. For we may yet regain what we have lost or lose what we have yet to regain. The liminal artefact poses doubts yet rarely confirms resolution.

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Fingerpost

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Blister

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Decay

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Rust

Andrews, M. (2012) ‘The autoroute and the picturesque’, Corkish, A. (ed.) In the company of ghosts: the poetics of the motorway. erbacce-press.

Augé, M. (2008) Non-places: an introduction to supermodernity. Verso

DeSilvey, C. and Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Reckoning with ruins’, Progress in Human Geography, 37(4), pp. 465–485.

Edensor, T. (2003) ‘Defamiliarizing the mundane roadscape’, Space and Culture, 6(2), pp. 151-168.

Gabriel, G. (2000) Storytelling in organisations: facts, fictions, and fantasies. Oxford University Press.

Yeats, W.B. (1921) ‘The Second Coming’, in W.B. Yeats selected poetry. Pan

All illustrations, Ian Rodwell, South Norfolk, July 2020.

Middenstead

Middenstead. The ‘place where a dunghill is formed’. This is the dust-heap, the rubbish pile, the flecked land of litter and waste. Here we find the discarded; the despoiled; the contaminated and the forgotten. These are spaces we shun or, more passively, we fail to see. They flicker at the margins of sight. For Shoard, the edgelands — the industrial, wasteland areas between town centre and country — are the ‘repositories for functions we prefer not to think about’ (Shoard, 2000).

And the liminal is a tainted land. Mary Douglas, in her analysis of societal attitudes towards dirt and pollution, observes how the blurred and contradictory are regarded as unclean (Douglas, 1966). There is a stain to that which cannot be categorised. This violation of boundaries disorientates and subverts. We crave clarity and the liminal resists our desires. And the result? Nausea, perhaps, disgust, revulsion.

In a fascinating study of filth, liminality and abjection in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, Robert Lougy views the novel as ‘congested with slime’ (Lougy, 2002).  With relish he describe Krook’s spontaneous combustion as ‘extraordinarily slimy’. His body is rendered — literally — to ‘black fat’, ‘a thick, yellow liquor’ and a ‘stagnant, sickening oil’. And slime is, undoubtedly, a liminal substance. Neither liquid nor solid, it both flows and adheres. For Sartre, the slimy offers ‘a horrible image’. It is an ‘aberrant fluid’. A something in-between; a something that is a non-thing (Sartre, 1973).

And the rubbish of the middenstead is also betwixt and between. Materially, it disintegrates from what it was to what it will become. Bottle, can and bag —  all fade, splinter and decay. And, spatially too, the middenstead, this realm of the unwanted and the consumed, is consigned to the margins. As I walk the local lanes, the middenstead is all around me. In the hedges, on the verges, by the styles. For many this litter is shameful, a taint that must be removed. Diligent volunteers, tabarded in luminescent yellow, painstakingly and enthusiastically remove each polluted item from its lair.

Yet, is there perhaps not strange beauty and mystery here too? For there is agency in every can and wrapper discarded. And where there is agency, we sense causation, plot and narrative. Who was drinking from the bottle of Budweiser discarded half a mile from any road? What were they doing there? Were they alone? Why were they drinking: celebration, relaxation — or a forgetting? And, occasionally, these items seem not abandoned, renounced nor forsaken, but carefully offered. Placed with care and devotion — strange and curious gifts to Gods we will never know.

And the land is not indifferent to these votive goods. It embraces and covets. It envelops in greenery and growth, claiming each item as its own. For the land is jealous and guards what is given to it. It consumes what we discard. And who are we to deny what it desires.

 

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Beer

 

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Water

 

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Coke

 

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Cigarettes

 

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Milk

 

Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. Routledge.

Lougy, Robert, E. (2002) ‘Filth, liminality, and abjection in Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House”‘, ELH, 69(2), pp. 473-500.

Sartre, Jean Paul. (1973) Being and nothingness: a phenomenological essay on ontology. Washington Square Press.

Shoard, M. (2000) ‘Edgelands of promise’, Landscapes, 2 (August), pp. 74-93

Wedlich, S. (2019) Das buch vom Schleim. Matthes & Seitz.

 

All illustrations, Ian Rodwell. South Norfolk, December 2019 – March 2020.

Arcadia

Villages have edgelands too. Rural ‘non-places’ that, like Brogden’s urban wasteland sites, are deprived of our attention, regard and affection (Brogden, 2019). These are marginal, interstitial spaces. Forgotten and taken for granted (Warnes, 2018), they are rarely destinations in their own right. Blink and we miss them — as we hurry on, eyes fixed on sites more privileged, more valued. Sites that plead the badge of heritage and tradition.

But in our edgelands there is meaning, myth and memory too. Look carefully though. For nothing is really as it seems. Arcadia and artefact embrace and confound. Edge and boundary twitch and coalesce — where does foliage end and machine begin?  The dance between the two is random and sporadic; the tune that leads them comes and goes. So listen carefully and you might hear. Take time to look and you might see.

And meaning here has to be won. For there is, as Mark Fisher suggests of the Marie Celeste and the statues on Easter Island, an eerie absence of presence (Fisher, 2016). Questions proliferate: who abandoned the cultivator and trailer and why? Will they ever be resurrected? What does the abandoned drum on the bridge signify? Who maintains the pylon and sub-station (for they are never seen)?

If you sense the answers, welcome. For you have glimpsed the true Arcadia.

 

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bridge

 

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wire

 

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cultivator

 

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pylon

 

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trailer

 

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tank

 

Brogden , J. (2019) Photography and the non-place: the cultural erasure of the city. Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, M. (2016) The weird and the eerie. Repeater.

Warnes, S. (2018) ‘Managing tensions in an English cathedral – an embodied spatial perspective’, in Kingma, S.F., Dale, K. and Wasserman, V. (eds.) Organizational space and beyond: the significance of Henri Lefebvre for organization studies. Routledge.

All illustrations, Ian Rodwell. South Norfolk, July 2019. Holga 120.

 

 

Macabre

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Ghost signs, as we have seen, haunt the margins of many zones. Here, fixed categories blur before our eyes. These faded imprints, inked or carved on shop face or wall, elide past, present, future, materiality, insubstantiality, presence and absence. To those that care to listen, they murmur of long-forgotten brands — cigarettes, flour, razors — or whisper stories of former use and occupancy: grocer, ironmonger, tripe dresser.

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In their susurration, half-heard above the squeal and thrum of brake and engine, we learn that all things must pass: brands, products, services, companies. For we are complacent in our organisations — comforted by the diurnal rhythm of the work we do. But ghost signs teach us that the firms and institutions (and the buildings that enclose them) rise and fall. Products and brands come and go. We are eternally poised on the limens — the threshold to oblivion.

The ghost sign reveals the past speaking in the present to remind us of our transience and disclosing the future to show the decay and dissolution that awaits us all. And such dialogues connect us to older dialogue and these signs to older signs. For these contemporary memento-mori have spectral ancestors who still walk silently beside us today.

What I am, they were, and they are, I will be

The admonitory advice of the ghost sign can be summarised in the words of St Bernard of Clairvaux, quoted by Paul Binski in Medieval death: ritual and representation (1996). Binski argues that the theme of the transience of the world was deeply rooted in Judaeo-Christian tradition and that the Christian notion of the body as a sign was implicated in the emergence of the macabre — a period of European art that lasted for 300 years between 14th and 16th centuries.

And there is one motif within the macabre that pre-figures later ghost signs and provides resonance and context for what was to follow. It too warns against complacency, emphasises the ineluctability of change, stresses the criticality of remedial action and, in its physical manifestations, materialises and embodies the rise and fall of organisations. Yet this sign is also ambiguous.

The motif is that of the Three Living and the Three Dead and the story is a simple one. Three young men, often depicted as kings, are out hunting, dressed in their finery (the splendour of which indicates their social status and importance). These Three Living then meet three cadavers in various stages of decomposition. A dialogue ensues in which the living express fear and mortification while the dead exhort them to improve their ways and to reflect on the transience of their lives and the foolishness of their behaviour.

So to explore further, let me take you to a remote Norfolk church. It is late on a smoky, damp Autumn afternoon. Saturday perhaps. Dusk is falling and the only sound is that of crow in yew and foot on gravel path. We open the wire-door to the porch and fumble with the lock on the centuries old door to the nave. We step inside and this is what we see.

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The encounter is a dialogue — and a dialogue by means of a doubled self. Mark Fisher, in The Weird and the Eerie, argues that the weird is the presence of something that should not be there. It is a ‘signal that the concepts and frameworks which we have previously employed are now obsolete’ (Fisher, 2016). And three decaying doppelgangers are not what our hunting kings expect to encounter.

And this unsettling, this disorientation, continues.

Binski explains how the image is ternary: it implicates us a viewer. We, as well as the three living are the recipients of the message. We are both inside and outside the scene, suspended in a hall of mirrors.

And this liminality proliferates. We see confusion of the animate and inanimate — and the reversal of initiative and agency as the regal hunters become the hunted.

We are also caught in a moment of instability between three temporal realms: as with ghost signs, the past imposes on the present to warn us of the future.

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The scene depicted is topographically liminal. The forest is represented by bare, lifeless, skeletal trees. This bleak landscape echoes to the past and to the future. Back to the ‘marches…heath…and the desolate’ fens in which the ‘grim demon’ Grendel dwelt in Beowulf.  And, in its withered starkness, forward perhaps to the shattered fields of Flanders. This is  ‘no-man’s land’: a contested geography inhabited by the both the living and the dead but to which neither can lay ultimate claim.

Even the wall painting’s physicality is liminal as time, concealment, damp and neglect ‘transform the qualities of matter’ (DeSilvey and Edensor 2013). Such processes of decay mock any compulsion for order (Edensor, 2001). Where does bare wall end and image begin? Corruption erodes the boundariness of objects: they become something else. Like all liminal artefacts, they are betwixt and between.

This wall painting also — though its very materiality — speaks of organisational change.

Many wall paintings were destroyed by puritan reformers or, as with Seething and Wickhampton, whitewashed over.

The zeal of the puritans is also visible in the rood panel scene of the Dance Macabre at nearby Sparham church. The eyes of the skeletal bride and bridegroom have been gouged out — a treatment usually afforded to icons of the saints.

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You could argue that this material disfigurement — like the effacement of the wall paintings — both embodies and reflects organisational transition. A mature and established market incumbent, the Church of Rome, has fallen victim to a hostile takeover by a brash young start-up: Reformation plc. The image’s vandalised materiality serves as a memento mori of the transience of organisational power and dominant market share.

But the message these ghosts bring is potentially more nuanced; more ambiguous.

This is an excerpt from the 15th century poem, The Three Kings — a retelling of the Three Living and the Three Dead — by John Audelay (translated by Giles Watson). The scene is vividly set:

And out of the grove, three men came into view:

Shadowy phantoms, fated to show,

With legs long and lean, and limbs all askew,

Their livers and lights all foetid…

The first king is cringing, his heart overcast,

For he recognises the cross on a rotting king’s shroud…

“Fiends? Demons? Nay! You’re mistaken!

We’re you’re fathers – salt of the earth – soon forgotten’

These dead are not just random ghosts. As the title suggests, they too were kings which makes them ancestors of the living Kings. And the first living king cringes because he recognises the heraldic sign on his ancestor’s rotting shroud. In a semiotic twist, the king’s identity has withered to a decaying sign. This connection is amplified by the second dead’s king assertion: we are not fiends, we are your fathers.

So, intertwined with the theme of transition and change is that of continuity. And the warning here, as Ashby Kinch identifies, is: do not ignore or debase one’s lineage (Kinch, 2008).

Consequently, dissolution may not prove inevitable. And, of course, some of the ghost signs we see relate to products and companies that have survived.

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This ghost is still very much alive – the lineal line persists (‘any time, any place, any where’ perhaps). And the message to its organisational descendants is ‘remember your brand legacy’. By paying heed and respect to tradition, corporate identity (‘the cross on a rotting king’s shroud’) may endure and survive. But to do so requires agency and intercessory action and, if we fail in our duties, then purgatory — or something worse —awaits.

So, the lesson the macabre teaches us is that ghosts (and the signs they haunt) speak not just of decay and negation but of continuity too. And, in this ambiguity, the ambivalence of the message, they are, of course, truly liminal.

(Adapted from a paper – ‘A warning to the curious: ghost signs as liminal memento-mori‘ presented at the Standing Conference on Organisational Symbolism 2019, held in York, 9-11 July)

Binski, P. (1996) Medieval death: ritual and representation. Cornell University Press

DeSilvey, C. and Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Reckoning with ruins’, Progress in Human Geography, 37(4), pp. 465–485.

Edensor, T. (2001) ‘Haunting in the ruins: matter and immateriality’, Space and Culture, 11/12, pp. 42-51.

Heaney, S. (translation) (1999) Beowulf. Faber and Faber.

Fisher, M. (2016) The weird and the eerie. Repeater.

Kinch, A. (2008) ‘Image, ideology, and form: the middle english“Three Dead Kings” in its iconographic context’, The Chaucer Review, 43(1), pp. 48-81.

Illustrations.

Rodwell, I. (2019) Sparham Church, Norfolk

Rodwell, I. (2019) York

Rodwell, I. (2019) Seething Church, Norfolk

Rodwell, I. (2019) Seething Church, Norfolk

Rodwell, I. (2019) Sparham Church, Norfolk

Rodwell, I. (2011) Bar-Sur-Loup, Nice, France